Apollo Magazine

Could museums have done more to protect their employees?

On both sides of the Atlantic, museums are laying off staff in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Gareth Harris and Matt Stromberg consider whether bad decisions have made the situation worse

Illustration by Dave Biskup

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On both sides of the Atlantic, museums are laying off staff in response to the financial consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, with more redundancies to come. Have bad decisions made the situation worse?

Gareth Harris

Listeners tuning in to Desert Island Discs recently on BBC Radio 4 would have heard the latest ‘castaway’, Tate director Maria Balshaw, defend restructuring plans at Tate Enterprises, the gallery’s commercial arm, after visitor figures and revenues plunged due to the coronavirus pandemic. A few days after her appearance, Tate Enterprises, which operates retail, catering and publishing services across all of the Tate sites, axed 313 jobs.

Balshaw told the programme’s presenter, Lauren Laverne, that she anticipates 50 per cent fewer visitors ‘for probably quite a long time […] sadly at the moment the trading business is too big’. Tate has already supported Tate Enterprises with £5m from its reserves, she stressed. Her words were cold comfort for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union, whose members at Tate voted to take strike action from 18 August. ‘Maria Balshaw said that we are all one family, but what family wouldn’t go out kicking and screaming if 300 of its members were being thrown out on to the scrap heap?’ Steven Warwick, the secretary of the PCS culture group, told the Art Newspaper. Tate Enterprise workers also raised concerns that job losses would unfairly affect black and minority ethnic (BAME) staff members, something Balshaw denies.

The same issue has arisen at the Southbank Centre. More than 7,000 people, including former and current employees, have signed an open letter (#SouthbankSOS) voicing their concern over the planned ‘programme of brutal redundancies’. Signatories claim the cuts will disproportionately affect BAME staff. Centre management issued a detailed rebuttal of most of the #SouthbankSOS claims, stressing that it will continue its ‘ongoing discussions with the BAME staff network to create a powerful diversity and equality action plan’.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery Company Ltd, which manages the National Gallery’s commercial enterprises, is also undertaking cost-cutting measures including redundancies. Many UK museums do not, of course, have a separate commercial arm for delivering parts of their service. A spokesperson for the grassroots organisation Fair Museum Jobs points out that from the perspective of larger institutions, ‘this model seems excellent: financial risks are mitigated and the rest of the museum is protected from vicissitudes in commercial activity, all the while reaping the golden rewards for the parent organisation’. But at these enterprise arms, contractual conditions tend to be substantially less favourable than in the rest of the museum, they claim (Tate declined to comment).

At the moment, none of Tate’s gallery staff will be affected. The British Museum says that there are no planned redundancies currently arising out of Covid-19, adding that: ‘We will need to assess the situation post the comprehensive spending review [in the autumn] and once we have a clearer idea of what the “new normal” looks like.’ The review, which sets out the government’s spending plans, will no doubt deliver leaner budgets for museums.

Over the past 30 years, both national and regional museums have become far more business-minded, relying heavily on self-generated (or earned) income, a move hastened by a reduction in government funding over the past decade. The current crisis was ‘an accident waiting to happen’, says an anonymous London-based curator who adds that ‘more casual labour will be the first casualty of this bums-on-seats policy centred on ticket sales and coffee-shop takings’.

The 15 museums sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) raised a total of £289m in self-generated income from 2018–19. According to its latest annual report, 71 per cent of Tate’s operating income – £85.1m set against £35.1m grant-in-aid from the Treasury – was self-generated during the same period. Bruce Boucher, director of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, says: ‘Trying to monetise culture is unrealistic in the present climate. With social distancing and reduced numbers, we need a new financial model that does not rely on the old performance indicators [targets set by the DCMS].’

Regional museums are also suffering. York Museums Trust has lost £1.5m in revenue to date because of the pandemic, and has been kept afloat with emergency funding from Arts Council England as well as public donations. But the trust is now having to consult staff on possible redundancies. Reyahn King, the trust’s chief executive, says the charity has negotiated rental agreements and ‘tirelessly sought other ways of reducing costs’.

Arts professionals are meanwhile wondering how to move forward in the post Covid-19 era. Boucher says: ‘Everything will have to be scaled back, from opening hours to blockbuster exhibitions.’ Museum employees will bear the brunt of the impending carnage.

Gareth Harris is chief contributing editor at the Art Newspaper.

Matt Stromberg

Forced to shutter and cut off from admission revenue, museums across the US have issued waves of furloughs and layoffs, which have hit front-line employees and temporary workers – many of whom make little more than minimum wage and are already in a precarious position – the hardest. The staff cuts have taken place in large and small institutions alike, striking museums such as the Guggenheim, the Met and the New Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Broad in Los Angeles, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In response to the question of whether US museums could have done more to protect their employees, some have proposed the endowment as a potential solution. The endowment is a collection of money and assets that generates income for the museum. These can range from millions of dollars for a smaller institution to the Met’s $3.6bn. Although some cultural institutions, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have drawn on their endowments to help alleviate pressures, it is generally only the earnings of the endowment, not the capital, that are dipped into. Furthermore, many endowments are comprised of restricted funds earmarked by donors for specific purposes.

‘Increasing an endowment draw is not best practice, since doing so effectively reduces the amount of funds the endowment will provide for the museum – and its staff and programs – in the future,’ Christine Anagnos, the executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), writes in an email. Despite this, the AAMD recently issued a series of resolutions loosening regulations, stating they would not censure a museum that ‘decides to use restricted endowment funds, trusts, or donations for general operating expenses’.

Tapping museum donors and board members for funds is another possibility. Museums are adorned with the names of board members whose donations have made possible a new wing or curatorial appointment. The president of MOCA’s board, Carolyn Clark Powers, made a much talked-about $10m pledge last year to guarantee free admission to the museum. While some board members have chipped in during this difficult time, it can be a challenge raising money for general funds like payroll.

Several museums applied for loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was intended to keep workers on payroll during the pandemic, though it was meant to last only for a couple of months. Despite receiving grants in the millions, some museums still decided they needed to furlough or lay off workers, including the New Museum, Guggenheim, Whitney Museum, and MOCA, leading some to wonder if they could have tried harder to keep workers on.

‘The only way workers will have leverage to change, modify, or mitigate conditions is through unionisation and collective power,’ says Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110 in New York, the union under which employees from several museums have recently organised. ‘That said, unions can’t always stop layoffs and furloughs, it’s beyond our control.’ What they can do, she says, is demand that museum administrations substantiate layoffs, negotiate severance packages, and ensure fair employee recalls once museums reopen.

Not all museums are letting their staff go. To give an example published by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, vowed to keep paying its staff during the shutdown. To accomplish this, it pivoted to transcribing and digitising materials from its collection, thus keeping workers occupied and also providing content for the public to access online. Despite a loss of $1m in revenue, the museum’s president and CEO, Matthew Naylor, told the AAM, ‘We quite firmly believe that our staff is invaluable and we’re willing to show our appreciation to our staff by compensating for that loss in a variety of ways.’ While other museums have similarly shifted to digital content, they are often doing so with a skeleton crew.

The current crisis raises the question of what exactly a museum is. Is it a collection of objects, or the staff that bring those objects to life and makes them accessible to the public? ‘We need to think about museums not only as repositories for things […],’ Nicole Cook, a member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Union organising committee, writes via email, ‘but rather as vital centers for scholarship, education, and community, all core activities that revolve around people – and more pointedly, activities that rely on fully staffed museums.’

Matt Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles.

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