After planning for a September reopening, Philadelphia’s children’s museum now says it will stay closed at least through Jan. 1, 2021.
With no earned revenue coming in, the Please Touch Museum has also slashed staff through another round of layoffs — its third such cut in six months.
This latest reduction of 24 workers means the museum has gone from having 71 employees in mid-March to a skeleton staff of 18, the museum announced Friday.
As recently as mid-July, the Please Touch, housed in Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, had been planning for a fall reopening. Then the city placed a moratorium on large gatherings to help stem the spread of COVID-19, and the School District began shifting its plans for in-person and remote learning for students this fall.
Please Touch officials thought they could reopen safely but were unsure — given uncertainties over public health — whether patrons would return in numbers large enough to cover the operating costs of a reopened museum, said president and CEO Patricia D. Wellenbach.
“I felt I had a responsibility to go to the board and say we should look at the wisdom of opening this soon,” said Wellenbach. “Even though we are ready, we’re not sure the public is ready.”
A number of Philadelphia museums and cultural institutions have begun showing signs of life following an abrupt forced shutdown in the middle of March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. But it’s a mixed bag across Philadelphia’s vast cultural sector, which in normal years is a $4.1 billion economic engine for the city.
The Franklin Institute and the Barnes Foundation have reopened at limited capacity and with new rules, and others are preparing to do so. Performing arts groups have had a tougher time developing safety protocols that would allow them to open, and are looking wistfully toward early 2021 or beyond. Opera Philadelphia has canceled its annual fall festival, and the Kimmel Center — highly dependent on a lucrative pipeline of Broadway shows now gone dry — has closed its doors for at least the remainder of 2020.
The Please Touch has relied on a budget covered overwhelmingly — 88% — by earned revenue like membership and ticket income and facilities rentals for events like weddings and corporate gatherings. The rest of the budget for the museum, which normally has about 500,000 visitors a year, is covered by philanthropy.
In addition to the layoffs, remaining staff will be working just four days a week and will continue with a 20% reduction in pay put into place several months ago, Wellenbach said. Her own salary has been cut by 20% and, pending discussions with the board, may be further reduced.
With the closure, the Please Touch’s operating budget is shrinking dramatically. For now, the museum is planning budgets on a quarterly basis, and for the period from October to December the museum is forecasting an operating budget of about $200,000 per month, substantially down from its normal $700,000 per month.
Remaining staff will stay on to maintain the building, work on educational projects already underway, and hammer out designs for new exhibitions for the museum’s eventual reopening.
When will that be? Wellenbach doesn’t know, though she thinks it will be sometime in early 2021.
“We don’t want to prolong this far into 2021. If we see a chance in January, we are ready to go. We would rehire in a way that is fiscally responsible.”
What she does know, she says, is that nothing has fundamentally changed the viability of the museum’s mission or place in the city. The Please Touch Museum will be back, she said.
“If I didn’t know it, I would have recommended to the board that we close now permanently,” she said. “This museum has weathered tremendous headwinds in the past and we have worked with many people to figure this out. We are not going down now.”