On Thursday afternoon, the Whitney Museum in New York informed staff that layoffs were imminent because of a budget crunch spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. The museum has since laid off 76 employees, most of whom had visitor services–related roles and would no longer be able to fulfill their duties during the shutdown. The announcement marks the first round of layoffs for one of New York’s major museums—and a sign that more reductions could be on the horizon as more than 6.6 million Americans file for employment this week.
“Our internal discussions throughout have focused on two goals: taking care of as many of our staff as we can for as long as we can, since you are the lifeblood of this institution; and ensuring that the Whitney will be able to stand strong when this crisis ends,” said museum director Adam Weinberg in an email to employees. He added that the museum intends to rehire staff when it reopens.
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Weinberg said he expects a shortfall of revenue of at least $7 million by the end of this fiscal year, which will be compounded by the adverse impact Covid-19 has had on fundraising and the endowment, which is tied to the stock market. According to him, the Whitney does not anticipate reopening before July 1; the museum’s closure will have an impact on future budgeting, as well.
Alongside visitor services staff, layoffs also included temporary employees from departments across the institution. The museum is offering five to six weeks’ pay, dating from its closure in mid-March for all staff who have been at the Whitney for two years or less. Health insurance for affected employees will continue through June 30. Senior staff, including Weinberg, will also be taking pay cuts.
“These are painful difficult times,” Weinberg added at the end of his address. “I want you to know I am grateful to all of you for everything you have done.”
After this article was published, another major New York institution, the New Museum, also announced widespread furloughs. Nearly one-third of its 150 staff members have been cut, resulting in 41 full- and part-time workers losing their jobs in every department. Senior staff have also taken salary cuts on a sliding scale from 10–20 percent, with the museum’s director, Lisa Phillips, taking a voluntary 30 percent reduction.
The organization also said seven employees were laid-off because their programs were being discontinued or cut back. (A spokesman did not detail which specific programs had been affected.)
For workers at the New Museum who had unionized at the cultural institution a little over a year ago, the announcement came as a disappointment. “The union is working to negotiate with the museum regarding the impact of these furloughs and layoffs on our members,” said Dana Kopel, a member of the union’s organizing committee. “At this time of incredible stress and uncertainty for all, we stand in solidarity with our members who have been subject to furloughs and layoffs.”
The Whitney Museum and the New Museum join hundreds of other cultural institutions who are embracing cost-cutting measures, including layoffs, to save their organizations from bankruptcy during the coronavirus epidemic. Earlier this week, the Museum of Modern Art told its 85 freelance educators that they were out of a job with no further payments made past March 30. Many of those freelancers are artists who work between museums across the city to supplement their income.
A few hours after Weinberg’s email, Whitney educators received an email from Heather Maxson, the museum’s director of school, youth, and family programs informing them that her department was planning on launching a new online teaching initiative in response to requests from New York school teachers, community partners, and senior centers.
“The program will serve our community during the Covid-19 crisis and will enable you, our dedicated freelance team, to keep working, even though the museum is closed,” Maxson wrote. “We’re hoping to offer online programs from now through the end of the school year.”
Details of the program are still being worked out, but the news was welcome for many artist-educators who have lost their entire livelihoods over the last month.
“This is very positive given that MoMA terminated the contracts of all educators on Monday,” said one freelancer who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “The Whitney is sending a powerful message to other museums.”