The Hard-Hit Arts Sector Is Facing a Brain Drain as Ambitious Workers Seek Greener Pastures

Dissatisfied cultural workers are leaving the field in droves—and museums may pay the price.

A view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in April. Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images.
A view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in April. Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images.

Ed Rodley had prepared to say goodbye—just not this way.

After more than three decades of continuous employment in cultural institutions across Massachusetts, the 56-year-old digital-media producer found himself among the dozens of employees laid off from the Peabody Essex Museum in June. The coronavirus pandemic had expedited a restructuring effort already underway there, deepening cuts to longtime workers.

Around the same time, Andrea Montiel de Shuman, 32, was tendering her resignation at the Detroit Institute of Arts. After nearly five years as the organization’s digital-experience designer, she had started experiencing what she described as “museum paralysis.”

Montiel de Shuman felt trapped under a leadership that she says belittled her expertise and disenfranchised other employees. Meanwhile, colleagues who had departed the industry were thriving with significant growth opportunities and comparably meaty salaries. Covid-19 simply affirmed that it was time to leave the museum.

Outside London, Lucy Charlotte came to a similar conclusion. Despite two years of front-of-house museum work at Tate, plus two more at the English Heritage nonprofit, and a recently earned graduate degree in art history, nearly 30 applications over an 18-month period came up short without so much as an interview offer. And then there was the pandemic.

“I started thinking about the future,” Charlotte, 25, explained. “How long can I wait around for an art job that will never happen?” She decided to exit the field entirely and become a midwife.

The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA. Courtesy Wikicommons.

The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, USA. Courtesy Wikicommons.

Jobs Are Going, Going, Gone

Scenes like these have unfolded all summer long as the lasting impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the arts sector have come into view. And with veterans and newcomers alike abandoning an industry struggling to confront racial and economic inequities, experts worry that the entire field will soon experience catastrophic losses of talent and institutional knowledge. Others claim that the brain drain is already here.

“Right now, there is a tremendous loss of faith among people who gave everything to museums,” said Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “The furloughs and the layoffs had a terrible psychic effect on people in our industry.”

The American Alliance of Museums has also identified the issue. “The pandemic continues to illuminate the inequities in our society,” a spokesperson told Artnet News, adding that the organization is especially concerned that “people of color are disproportionately affected by furloughs and layoffs.”

Stories of departure from the field are putting names and faces to the onslaught of worrying statistics released this summer on the creative economy’s health. One report, published by the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution, estimated that between April 1 and July 31, the fine and performing arts sectors have lost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales.

Another report, prepared for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs by Southern Methodist University, found that nearly 15,000 workers have been laid off or furloughed from 810 cultural organizations in the city over the course of just two weeks in April and May. The latest edition of the UBS Global Art Market Report, meanwhile, estimates that with gallery sales decreasing by nearly 36 percent, more dealers may shutter their brick-and-mortar stores.

“At the moment, the arts industry is being decimated both creatively and economically because the necessary infrastructure needed to support talent is crumbling,” said Michael L. Royce, the director of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). “With that said, the sector will come back, and we have a moral responsibility to address racial inequality within the entire arts complex now to ensure that it returns with a stronger and more grounded focus.”

One indicator of how economic forces are playing out in the art world is NYFA’s job board, a widely used resourced for anyone looking for employment in the industry. Over the past six months, the foundation has seen a 59 percent decrease in job listings compared to the same time period last year.

Mary Ceruti, the director of the Walker Art Center. Photo: Sam Deitch, courtesy BFA.

Mary Ceruti, the director of the Walker Art Center. Photo: Sam Deitch, courtesy BFA.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

There is reason to believe that many of the losses will be permanent. Researchers at the University of Chicago have published an analysis on pandemic-era layoffs, estimating that 42 percent of layoffs will result in permanent job losses.

Budget shortfalls have resulted in a regression of priorities in many museums, where once-growing fields like digital media and education are being targeted for cuts. “Museums are shedding staff and the brain drain is just immeasurable,” Rodley said. “It’s almost like the clock is ticking backwards on the evolution of museums. Everything that’s happened since the 1950s has been sloughed off.”

Two weeks ago, Paul Schmelzer was among the employees terminated at the Walker Art Center, where he led the museum’s award-winning online magazine, Walker Reader, for almost a decade.

“I was stunned,” Schmelzer said. “I spent the last week being numb because I had put my personal values and passion into my job.”

Museum director Mary Ceruti said that layoffs were part of a restructuring effort underway before Covid-19.

“It’s not unusual for a new director to change priorities and develop new approaches,” she told Artnet News in an interview, saying that the Walker Reader was currently on pause as her team was reconsidering what form it could take in the future.

“Museums are being challenged at every step of the way,” she added. “But how are museums ever going to change if everybody in museums stays?”

Nevertheless, some worry about the precedent of such decisions on the museum workforce. “What Mary Ceruti is doing there is disrespectful to the institution,” the art critic Tyler Green, who has been following the situation at the museum, said. “Why would anyone in the industry think they have job security when something like this happens to someone as prominent as Paul?”

Somerset House home of the Courtauld Institute. Wikimedia.

Somerset House home of the Courtauld Institute. Wikimedia.

“So Much Talent is Wasted”

According to Eccles, the costs associated with losing valuable sources of institutional knowledge are immense. Not only will museums become less efficient, but he estimates that operational costs will jump by nearly 50 percent to train new employees.

“It’s going to take some years before we get back to where we were before,” he said.

But the industry tremors that have accompanied Covid-19 are only part of a larger trend of dissatisfaction among the sector’s employees. Over the past year, museum employees across the country have spearheaded unionization efforts and started to informally organize advocacy groups around salary transparency, equity, and inclusion. But amid the pandemic, optimism about whether museums can adequately evolve and welcome employees who are not uniformly white and wealthy has dwindled.

“Diversity means nothing when there are no equitable practices and intentional acknowledgements of what actually happens in decision-making,” Montiel de Shuman said. “More people need to speak up, but I have no right whatsoever to ask someone to go through the sacrifices that I know it takes to be in this field.”

The vanishing allure of working in the arts will be a challenge for museums when they emerge from the pandemic and begin hiring again. With so many professionals exiting the field and graduate programs taking a hiatus, recruiting practices for the once-competitive world of cultural institutions may have to change.

“So much talent and passion is wasted,” said Charlotte, who has already seen the vast majority of her classmates from the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she received her bachelor’s degree, leave the field. She estimated that only about five peers are still working in the arts, from a cohort of nearly 50 students. After failing to secure an internship, one friend eventually abandoned her dreams of museum work for life as a cheesemaker.

“The people who get to stay in the art world are those who can afford to work for nothing,” Charlotte says. “The pandemic was just the final straw.”


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