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The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr.

Museums Across the US Lay Off Workers as COVID-19 Cases Rise

In an attempt to contain the novel coronavirus in the United States—where the number of confirmed cases has surpassed those in China and Italy and was approaching 86,000 at the time of publication—federal and state governments have banned large public gatherings, have issued “shelter at home” orders, and are urging people to practice social distancing. The safety measures resulted in nationwide shutdowns, which have subsequently led to mass layoffs.

Since galleries, museums, and arts organizations shuttered earlier this month with no idea when they can reopen, job losses were inevitable. Some museums, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, plan on paying hourly and part-time workers through the closure. Some institutions, including the Broad in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will only pay workers until a fixed date, when they will reassess their options. Other museums have already begun letting people go.

Earlier this week, both the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), Los Angeles, and the Hammer Museum at UCLA moved to lay off workers on the same day. MoCA decided to lay off all ninety-seven of its part-time staffers; while the Hammer, which does not expect to open again until mid-July, laid off 150 part-time student employees. In anticipation of large revenue losses, museums are also implementing pay cuts and furloughing workers. Employees who cannot work remotely, including art handlers, installers, security guards, retail and front-desk workers, gallery attendants, and freelancers, are most vulnerable to losing their jobs.

On Thursday, cleveland.com reported that the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio furloughed all part-timers, temporarily laid off unionized workers, and reduced salaries by between 11 and 15 percent in order to preserve jobs. In Massachusetts, the Berkshire Eagle reports that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will let go of 120 of its 165 employees, three quarters of its staff, on April 10, and the Norman Rockwell Museum informed its seventy-five employees that it will be eliminating jobs after April 11. The Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh—comprising the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Carnegie Science Center, and the Andy Warhol Museum—furloughed staff members whose roles are not essential to operations during the extended closure.

“By responding quickly, with a comprehensive and balanced plan designed to sustain the museums and their missions for the longer term, we feel the four Carnegie Museums, which are such important assets to our community, will be in the best possible position to re-open once this terrible pandemic is passed,” said Bill Hunt, chair of the Carnegie Museums’ board of trustees. While many museums are hoping to reopen soon and President Donald Trump has stated that he wants to end the strict preventive measures and restart the economy by Easter, institutions must prepare for a lengthy shutdown.

The Met, which projected a $100 million shortfall should it remain closed through July, developed a strategy in response to COVID-19 that involves redirecting funds to operations, evaluating how to reduce spending and curb costs, and reopening with a less ambitious program. The Smithsonian Institution, which consists of twenty museums and galleries as well as the National Zoo, also predicts a loss of millions of dollars. In order to mitigate the financial strain on the network of museums, Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch told the Washington Post on Monday that he is planning for multiple scenarios that include the pandemic ending in the summer, a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, and long-term social distancing measures that could last for more than eighteen months.

The Smithsonian has since been awarded $7.5 million in the $2 trillion federal stimulus package, which was passed by the Senate on Wednesday and will be voted on by the House of Representatives on Friday. The bill allocates more than $230 million for the arts and humanities. While the number is far lower than the $4 billion in aid that the American Alliance of Museums was advocating for, the open-ended nature of the public health crisis means more financial relief may come.

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