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Philadelphia Museum of Art plans to shed at least 100 employees — more than 20% of its staff

Its budget devastated by the pandemic, the museum has announced a sweeping reduction in staff.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, closed since March and with a budget decimated by the pandemic-induced shutdown, is moving to cut more than 100 jobs from its staff through furloughs, voluntary departures, and possibly layoffs.

The furloughs will go into effect July 6, museum officials told employees during a webinar meeting Wednesday morning. Some furloughed employees will be recalled as operations ramp up, they added. A buyout package will be offered to furloughed and non-furloughed employees in most museum departments.

In addition, more than 50 currently vacant positions will not be filled, the museum said.

If enough cuts are not achieved by the “voluntary separation package” agreements, administrators said, layoffs may be necessary. That should become clear in September, they said.

Amounting to more than 20% of its staff, the projected cuts represent the most sweeping employee reduction since at least the early 1990s, when the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and the museum lost city funding for 80 security guards.

In the wake of the Great Recession, in 2009, the museum cut 30 staff positions as financial markets plummeted. (The museum’s endowment stood at $497 million at the end of 2019, up $10 million from the end of 2018.)

Museum administrators said Wednesday that the prolonged coronavirus-related shutdown has savaged admissions, retail sales, food services, and special-events income.

The budget for fiscal year 2021, which will go into effect July 1, stands at $49 million — with a $6.5 million gap between revenues and expenses that administrators said can be closed only by shedding employees. The upcoming budget has already been trimmed from the current $60 million figure.

The museum is expected to reopen, in a modest way, later in the summer (the date is uncertain) with visitation expected to hover at 40% to 50% compared with previous years, according to officials.

For the first 3½ months of closure, the museum has avoided layoffs, making do by cutting salaries and other spending.

Now the staff reductions are the latest in a series of events this year that has upended life at the seemingly placid neo-classical bastion looking down from its hill at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In January, the New York Times reported that a former museum manager had entered into relationships with female staffers and dangled prospects for promotion before them. Subsequently, The Inquirer reported that a former retail manager was repeatedly abusive to subordinates, sometimes physically.

In both instances, employees expressed concern that museum management failed to act promptly in response to complaints. Timothy Rub, museum director and chief executive, Gail Harrity, president and chief operating officer, and board chair Leslie Anne Miller vowed change, and brought in consultants to assess the museum’s internal “culture.”

When the Black Lives Matter protests of police brutality broke out across the city and the world, Rub and Harrity sent an email to all staff members affirming their support for diversity, and noting that “every individual life matters.”

In the context of the burgeoning demonstrations, the email struck many as out-of-touch, at best. Rub and Harrity apologized and reiterated their commitment to diversity in all museum matters. With 481 current employees and only 38 African Americans, or 8%, Rub and Harrity responded to concerned employees that “we must and will do more.”

It’s not clear what impact the reductions might have on the diversity of museum staff. A museum spokesperson said the matter is uncertain at this stage because the separation agreements are voluntary and are being offered to furloughed and non-furloughed employees alike.

Last month, internal unrest bubbled into the open when employees contacted the National Labor Relations Board and submitted union authorization cards calling for a vote to affiliate with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 47, which represents white-collar city workers, including employees at the Philadelphia Zoo. The union said nearly two-thirds of the staff had backed such a vote.

Museum management declined to voluntarily recognize the union and hired Morgan Lewis, a big Philadelphia-based law firm known for its aggressive tactics involving management and labor. Organizers and museum lawyers took part this week in an NLRB hearing over the unionization drive, debating the makeup of any bargaining units.

In earlier interviews, union organizers expressed concern that any layoffs or furloughs might disproportionately affect unionizing efforts.

A spokesperson for the museum said that furloughs were distributed across departments, with the exception of curatorial staff and conservation. He noted that furloughed employees would retain the right to vote in any union election. Organizers said it was too early to determine whether furloughs were directed disproportionately at them or at particular departments, although one said that “visitors services got hit really hard — that I know.”

The separation packages come with severance pay and six months of paid health insurance. Furloughed employees will also have their health insurance premiums paid by the museum.

Adam Rizzo, a staffer in the education department who escaped the cutbacks, said that the focus is “trying to support our coworkers as much as we can … helping them through the unemployment application process or, you know, who knows what, but I’m just trying to be a resource for people.”

When the museum does reopen, possibly by the end of July or early August, it will start with reduced hours, and public performances and programs will not return until it is deemed safe to attend, a museum spokesperson said.

The main building overlooking the Parkway will be closed every Monday and Tuesday for antiviral cleaning. The Rodin Museum, which the museum operates, will also reopen with reduced hours. The galleries in the Perelman Building across Kelly Drive will remain closed.

In addition to curtailing performances and programs, a much-anticipated Jasper Johns retrospective, which the museum is holding in tandem with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, has been postponed, probably until sometime in 2021.

The reduction of the museum’s operations will have a ripple effect across the city. The PMA is one of the top tourist destinations in Philadelphia — it has been averaging nearly 800,000 visitors annually in recent years, putting it roughly on the same level as the Franklin Institute. (By way of comparison, the Liberty Bell drew 2.1 million visitors in 2018.)

It is not surprising that the Franklin Institute is facing the same budget difficulties as the Art Museum and has already laid off all part-time workers and more than 40% of its full-time staff, leaving it with about 75 employees.

The institute is planning to reopen as soon as the city gives the green light after July 3, said CEO Larry Dubinski.

The kneecapping of the Art Museum and the Franklin Institute, coupled with similar problems at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which has announced furloughs for 80% of its staff and layoffs for 10% of its administrative staff, is ominous news for the city’s $7 billion tourist industry.