US museums blame falling visitor numbers for staff redundancies

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As US museums continue to grapple with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, several have drawn correlations between the years-long slump in visitors and cuts to their workforce. But as visitor numbers begin to stabilise, it remains unclear whether museums will reinstate those eliminated positions, an issue that has become more urgent as funds are increasingly allocated to other projects.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York reported that it received over 861,000 visitors in 2023, 33% fewer than it received in 2019. The museum laid off ten employees in December last year, citing rising operational costs, inflation and a drop in visitors and memberships since the pandemic as the reason for the downsizing. The museum declined to comment further.

Last summer, the Guggenheim raised the price of adult admissions from $25 to $30. Similar price hikes had already been introduced at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which offers pay-as-you-wish admission only to New York State residents and Tri-State area students), the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA).

SFMoMA, which could not be reached for comment as The Art Newspaper went to press, eliminated 20 positions in November last year, laying off seven employees and choosing not to backfill 13 roles. Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director, said attendance had fallen 65% since 2019, writing in a statement that the drop mirrored “broader economic issues” like the drastic decline of foot traffic in downtown San Francisco since the pandemic.

Some museums have been criticised for forging ahead with multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion projects while simultaneously cutting their workforce. In October last year, the Dallas Museum of Art laid off 8% of its staff and reduced its opening hours during a refurbishment that is projected to cost up to $180m. The decision affected 20 employees, two of whom were demoted to part-time roles.

Amid a $100m renovation and expansion of its campus, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) in Maine cut 13 positions in February. In 2022 the museum settled an unfair labour practices complaint with 14 former employees who had been laid off. The PMA declined a request for an interview but in a statement said that it had experienced a 35% drop in attendance since 2020 and that government credits to retain programming and staff would “soon expire”.

The PMA states that around 70% of its operating budget covers staff wages and benefits, and that the museum’s director, Mark Bessire, took a voluntary 20% salary cut. However, the museum will move forward with the redevelopment of its campus, which it argues is dated. Once the project is complete in mid-2025, it hopes to draw around 500,000 visitors a year, a dramatic boost from the 170,831 visitors it received in 2019—numbers that will naturally call for more workers.

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