The party’s over as New York’s top museums feel the pinch

MoMA, the Met and the Brooklyn Museum are planning to reduce staff numbers to help balance the books

by Dan Duray  |  20 June 2016
The party’s over as New York’s top museums feel the pinch
MoMA is to introduce a voluntary staff buyout programme in July. Photo © Scott Rudd
Many in the field were surprised when three of New York’s top museums—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Brooklyn Museum—announced that they would seek to reduce staff in the coming months. On Friday, 17 June, the Met revealed the first of such cutbacks among some of its highest paid staff: Cynthia Round, the senior vice president for marketing and external relations; Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer, who is leaving after three years in the newly created post; and Susan Sellers, the head of design, who was involved in the museum's rebranding campaign. The departures come in the "context of the recentering of the museum’s work and our current financial restructuring", the Met's director Thomas Campbell said in a letter to staff, shared by Sreenivasan.

The three museum's plans, all announced within four weeks of each other, illustrate a growing problem in cultural fundraising today. While there seems to be ample money to finance expansions—a recent survey by The Art Newspaper found that US museums spent $5bn on building projects between 2007 and 2014—there is less money available to pay staff.

None of these institutions is in dire straits. The Met, which recently expanded into the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, said that its 24-month restructuring effort was spurred by a $10m deficit this year. Meanwhile, the museum’s endowment at the end of 2015 was $2.7bn.

“We’ve been investing in various programmes that we think are interesting and important, and we’ve probably done that a bit faster than we should have,” says Daniel Weiss, the museum’s president. In addition to soliciting buyouts and potentially laying off staff, the Met’s belt-tightening will include extending exhibitions and delaying work on its planned David Chipperfield-designed Modern and contemporary wing.

MoMA, which began a $440m renovation and expansion earlier this year, is also not lacking in funds. News that the museum’s voluntary buyout programme would begin in July came on the heels of a $100m donation from the music mogul David Geffen. A spokeswoman says that the museum’s operations will be reduced during construction and that the programme is intended for staff nearing retirement.

The Brooklyn Museum, which recently unveiled a reinstallation of its collection, said its voluntary buyouts are part of an effort to reduce a projected $3m deficit. “The Brooklyn Museum has seen tremendous growth over the past few years, but like many other prominent cultural organisations in New York, the cost of running the museum has substantially grown,” says its director Anne Pasternak.

Susan Talbott, the former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut, says that failing to account for the cost of operations is “one of the very common pitfalls of expansion…You have this big new building but you don’t have the staff to staff it, you don’t have the security to monitor it.” During her tenure, she declined to expand the Wadsworth into the nearby Hartford City Hall to avoid putting the museum in a tough financial spot. The problem is big enough that successful development administrators are frequently poached from one institution to another, she says.

“It’s true today and it was true 30 years ago,” says Tom Freudenheim, the former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. “It was easier to raise money for naming somebody’s building than paying someone’s staff.”

Both the Met and MoMA spend the majority of their annual budgets on staff, according to spokespeople. Salaries at major US museums, especially for top curators, can be two or three times those in the UK. In 2013, the Met spent $200m (70% of its annual operating costs) on salaries and benefits for its 2,300 employees, according to tax documents. MoMA spent $87m (50% of its annual operating costs) to pay 800 employees.

In the wake of the financial crisis in 2009, the Met made 74 employees redundant and gave voluntary retirement packages to 95 more. MoMA faced a strike in 2015 from Local 2110, a union that represents 280 employees, over attempts to weaken its healthcare benefits, but reached an agreement in the 11th hour. It suffered a four-month strike in 2000 over similar issues.

Outside certain endowed curatorships, there is no obvious solution beyond convincing donors that staff and operations are worth paying for. MoMA’s tactics to raise money for staffing, according to a spokeswoman, include its membership programme and specialised councils.

Weiss says that overspending on expansion is inevitable for any institution that wants to generate donations. “Here at the Met that problem dates back to 1870, since we opened,” he says. “One wants to be at an institution that’s aspirational, that’s pushing boundaries, so there’s always going to be recalibration.”

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