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The Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Whitney Museum of American Art.

MoMA and New Museum Among NY Institutions Cutting Jobs to Curb Deficits

Major museums across New York City are laying off workers and furloughing employees to reduce payroll expenses as they brace to lose millions of dollars because of the COVID-19 quarantine. Within the course of a week, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) terminated all contracts with its eighty-five freelance education workers, the New Museum furloughed nearly one third of its full- and part-time staffers, and the Whitney Museum of American Art let go seventy-six employees who were unable to work remotely.

“We have made these decisions with great reluctance as we continue to assess this new and unforeseen landscape and try to forecast the months to come,” Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney, said in a statement. “We are grateful to all our staff for the tremendous diligence and dedication they have shown throughout this time, and to the museum’s board of trustees for their continuing guidance and their financial support of the museum, its programs, and its staff.” While the museum plans to rehire staff members once it reopens, it is currently preparing to lose at least $7 million because of the shutdown. Weinberg does not expect the institution to reopen until July.

The New Museum has furloughed forty-one members of its 150-person staff, which recently unionized. The museum also laid off seven staffers whose programs were being discontinued or cut back. The institution called the decision “very painful,” but is pledging to extend their health-care benefits to June 30. Dana Kopel, who was active on the union’s organizing committee, said that “the union is working to negotiate with the museum regarding the impact of these furloughs and layoffs on our members. At this time of incredible stress and uncertainty for all, we stand in solidarity with our members who have been subject to furloughs and layoffs.”

The eighty-five educators at MoMA were paid through March 30, but were told in an email sent on Monday and reviewed by Crain’s that it “will be months, if not years,” before the museum anticipates “returning to the budget and operations levels to require educator services.” Museum spokeswoman Amanda Hicks said that “with the open-ended closure of the museum, we’ve faced the painful reality that there will be no new contract assignments to offer a group of excellent freelance educators who work on an as-needed basis at museums across the city, including MoMA.”

Responsible for tasks ranging from organizing lectures and developing community programs, many of the educators have advanced degrees and have worked for MoMA for a number of years. While they freelance so that they have the flexibility to work with numerous institutions in the city, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the opportunity to earn more money, it puts the educators at risk of being the first to lose their jobs as institutions prioritize maintaining their regular staffers.

Standing apart from other institutions, the Met has not made any layoffs, and on March 30, it committed to paying its 2,200 employees until May 2. In addition to the fact that the museum boasts a larger endowment fund than most—currently $3.6 billion—the organizing group Art + Museum Transparency reports that unionized employees were responsible for negotiating the no-layoffs extension, a win benefitting non-union staffers as well. 

With the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increasing at a rapid rate—there were 102,863 cases in New York State on Friday, and the death toll jumped from 1,500 on March 31 to 2,935 on April 3—many museums will have to continue making difficult decisions regarding their workforce. During a press conference in Albany on Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “Everyone wants to know one thing: ‘When is it over?’ Nobody knows . . . but I can say this, it’s not going to be soon.”

[Update: May 8, 2020, 10: 52 AM] A previous version of this article said that MoMA laid off its freelance educators. It has been updated to reflect that the museum ended all of its contract educator assignments.