The Smithsonian Slashes 237 Jobs in an Attempt to Offset the Ongoing Financial Losses of Lockdown

The Smithsonian has lost $49 million since it closed in March.

The Freer Gallery of Art. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Layoffs have hit the Smithsonian Institution, the national organization that oversees 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo. The 237 job cuts are the first permanent staff reductions that the Smithsonian has made as it attempts to offset financial losses incurred since lockdown began in March.

The layoffs effected workers at the Smithsonian’s shops, theaters, and concessions who had already been without pay or benefits since July 5, when the organization instituted furloughs. (The Smithsonian’s eight cafeterias and cafes, which are still closed, are operated by Restaurant Associates, and those workers are unaffected.)

“We tried to retain as many [employees] as we possibly could,” Ed Howell, head of retail for Smithsonian Enterprises, which manages the institution’s commercial activities, told the Washington Post. “But the vision is that this is going to go on for an extended period of time. Financially, it was a real struggle.”

Since its closure in March, the Smithsonian has lost $49 million, largely due to the lack of event ticket sales and gift shop and restaurant revenue. That represents a significant portion of its $1.5 billion annual budget, only two-thirds of which is funded by Congress.

The gift shop at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The gift shop at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of African Art.

The financial shortfall looks poised to continue, with many of the Smithsonian’s museums still closed today. Only eight are currently open to the public: the National Zoo, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Feeling the financial pressure, the Smithsonian took other cost-cutting measures earlier this year, instituting year-long salary and hiring freezes and 10 percent salary cuts for 87 senior-level, nonfederal executives on May 24. Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and deputy secretary Meroe Park took 15 percent pay reductions, while the 66 Smithsonian Enterprises employees earning $100,000 or more took 5 percent reductions. Federal workers, who make up the majority of the institution’s 6,300 employees, were not affected.

Layoffs and furloughs have been widespread in the US museum sector this year, with reduced staff at such major institutions as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—sometimes with more than one round of cutbacks.

In a survey conducted in June, the American Alliance of Museums found that 44 percent of museums have been forced to institute some kind of staff reductions, and that up to 12,000 institutions might be forced to close permanently.

The Smithsonian’s layoffs went into effect on Monday, the beginning of the first pay period of the new fiscal year beginning October 1. Many museums start their fiscal year on July 1, which led to a loss of some 1,500 jobs at institutions across the country in June.

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