SFMOMA Lays Off an Additional 55 Staff Members as Museums Prepare for a Reckoning Heading Into a New Fiscal Year

The museum is dealing with a range of thorny questions amid protests and the ongoing shutdown.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy of SFMOMA.

In the weeks after museums across the United States closed their doors to preserve public health in March, a steady drumbeat of layoffs and furlough announcements plagued the sector. Among those making dramatic cutbacks was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which laid off or furloughed some 60 percent of its nearly 500-person staff. Now, as the museum prepares to enter a new fiscal year in July, it is making another round of cutbacks, laying off 55 people from a variety of departments last week.

The news may send a shudder down the spines of museum workers, considering that many hoped that loans from the Paycheck Protection Program and progress toward reopening in many states would stave off a second round of layoffs. But a spokesperson for SFMOMA told Artnet News that the measures were necessary in light of a projected deficit of $18 million for the fiscal year of 2021. (This is on top of the projected $7 million deficit for the fiscal year of 2020, which the museum announced when it made its initial staff cuts in March.) The losses are compounded by new reopening guidelines announced by the city of San Francisco that delays the museum’s planned reopening from July to mid-August, the spokesperson said.

The cutbacks may be particularly unsettling considering the museum received a $6.2 million loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program in April, which enabled it to cancel a previously announced furlough of 147 employees before it was even enacted, as well as pay staff in full through June 30. (Notably, a group of 131 on-call employees who were laid off in March were not reinstated; those layoffs, plus the latest round, accounts for almost 40 percent of the museum’s pre-shutdown staff.)

Installation view of Julie Mehretu's HOWL eon (I, II) (2017) at SFMoMA. Photo: Matthew Millman Photography.

Installation view of Julie Mehretu’s HOWL eon (I, II) (2017) at SFMOMA. Photo: Matthew Millman Photography.

The museum declined to specify how many of the laid-off staffers had previously been on furlough, but said they will receive severance based on tenure (up to a maximum of 24 weeks’ pay), COBRA health-insurance coverage paid for by the museum, and job search assistance. A representative for the museum’s union, which negotiated severance packages for its members, confirmed SFMOMA is compensating staff and offering health care through July 31.

Notably, the layoffs were preceded by a rare public missive from SFMOMA’s staff beseeching the museum to preserve jobs. In fact, staff members who wrote the open letter even offered to have their own pay or hours reduced in order to share the burden. (The signatories remained anonymous online, but a source told Artnet News it was written by a mix of union and non-union staffers.)

“Staff at all levels have offered to decrease their hours or pay, to share what workload exists in order to preserve all of our jobs,” the letter’s authors wrote. “This is a proven strategy, used by forward-thinking businesses to survive downturns without layoffs.”

SFMOMA director Neal Benezra. Image courtesy SFMOMA.

SFMOMA director Neal Benezra. Image courtesy SFMOMA.

The letter also took aim at director Neal Benezra’s salary, suggesting that his voluntary pay cut—50 percent for several months—is not enough. One former staffer called it “a drop in the bucket” in a phone conversation with Artnet News. (Benezra made just shy of $1 million in 2018, the most recent information available, according to tax filings.)

“Even after taking a 50 percent pay cut, Neal Benezra earns more in one month than a full-time frontline staff member earns in an entire year,” the letter states. “At the start of this crisis the top 20 earners took a meager 10 percent salary cut, but those cuts are set to end at the same time that layoffs are scheduled to be announced.”

Asked if the museum had considered the requests made in the letter, the spokesperson told Artnet News: “These were difficult and painful decisions for us. The museum explored all potential options but unfortunately, with an $18 million deficit ahead of us, we needed to both scale back and restructure our program and operations to be financially sustainable for the long term.” 

The spokesperson said the museum is pursuing additional measures to make up the shortfall, including a reduced exhibition schedule, reduced expenses, redirected accession funds, increased trustee support, fundraising, and potential deaccessioning.

The silvery fingers of San Francisco’s fog (named “Karl” by locals) with the rippled facade of SFMOMA’s new 10-story expansion. Courtesy SFMOMA.

This is not the only challenge the museum faced last week. News of the layoffs came as the museum was under fire for its response to the countrywide protests against police brutality. SFMOMA was one of several art institutions called out for tepid statements that failed to mention George Floyd, racism, police, or Black Lives Matter. The backlash grew after the museum deleted a critical comment from Taylor Brandon, a black former employee.

“The issues are all interrelated,” a former SFMOMA staffer told Artnet News. “For a long time, the museum has not been doing enough around racial justice and it’s driven out a good number of employees for that specific reason… labor equity goes hand in hand with racial justice and SFMOMA has drastically failed here.”

In a later post, Benezra publicly apologized to Brandon, who, he said, “raised serious and important concerns.” In an email to museum supporters over the weekend, he pledged to enact new policies, including setting firm and clear targets to dramatically increase the representation of African American employees and growing the museum’s collection of work by artists of color. “Just as our country must do better, so must we,” he wrote.

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