Even though there will probably come a time when the coronavirus pandemic recedes into memory, the economic shutdown caused by it is likely to impact the art industry for years to come. Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment because of the pandemic. Thousands of those Americans work in the cultural sector for museums, galleries, art schools, and other cultural organizations.
Even the wealthiest institutions are struggling to survive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has projected a $100 million loss in revenue. Last week, the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh said it expected deficits of $1.4 million per month of closure. The consortium consequently announced pay cuts as high as 30 percent for senior staff and a temporary furlough for around 550 employees—just over half its workforce—for the anticipated two-month shutdown.
[Read a guide to the major U.S. art museums that have made layoffs and furloughed staff.]
But most institutions operate on razor-thin budgets, and according to a 2018 survey by Southern Methodist University’s DataArts center, arts organizations have seen a decrease in working capital since 2013—meaning they lack the liquid assets necessary to cover operating costs.
The precarity the industry faces is best exemplified by the people behind it. Last week, ARTnews spoke with displaced artists, laid-off workers, and museum executives making tough decisions about their futures. These are their stories.
Former Hammer Museum employee based in Los Angeles
Two years ago, Alexandra Ivanova joined the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as a frontline ambassador. She enjoyed welcoming visitors into the building and assisting with public programs; it was a welcome distraction from her science classes at UCLA that would help pay for graduate school. In September, the 21-year-old student was promoted to museum experience lead. This March, Ivanova was laid off alongside nearly 150 other student employees.
“It’s sad because we know that the museum has the money,” she said, “but for the administration, saving costs seems more important than worker lives.”
Ivanova was especially worried about her immigrant colleagues who no longer have jobs and will not be able to access relief funds from the federal government because of their citizenship status. She estimates that about a third of her laid-off coworkers will be affected. “They don’t know what will happen, if they will be deported, or if they can find another source of income,” she added.
As a graduating senior who is financially independent, Ivanova worries about how she is going to pay rent. She is immunocompromised, which limits her ability to work during coronavirus. She had recently decided to matriculate into a public health masters program at Yale University, but now she might defer because of the costs.
“I want some acknowledgment from the museum of the fact that it’s going to hurt a lot of people,” she said. “You are subjecting people to huge hardships in the middle of a literal plague.”
Former Tenement Museum employee based in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey
Before the coronavirus outbreak, Michelle Moon was chief program officer at the Tenement Museum in Manhattan. She would wake up at 6:30 a.m. to prepare for her hour-long commute from New Jersey to the institution, and her high-velocity days there mostly consisted of meetings about how the museum could further develop and collaborate with other organizations.
Now that she’s been laid off alongside 12 other employees at the museum, she’s trying to keep some semblance of the old routine. The mornings are spent surveying the latest news from other museums about closures and layoffs. She interacts with hundreds of her colleagues online, forming webinars and working groups about how the art industry might resurrect after the shutdown.
“I think of the day in chunks and sign up for opportunities,” she said. “It helps to create some normalcy.” She tries to regiment her days of quarantine with workouts and meals. And she remains steadfastly optimistic.
“Museum managers should see that this is an opportunity to rebuild healthier work structures and attempt to make jobs more supportive,” she explained. “Maybe there will be fewer jobs but better ones. More benefits and fuller employment. The pandemic will change the way we work inside our institutions.”
Columbia University M.F.A. student who relocated to San Francisco
Joseph Liatela could see the writing on the wall. He bought a one-way ticket home to San Francisco, leaving behind his studio at Columbia University in New York, where he is studying for his M.F.A. degree in visual art. He stuffed what he could into a luggage bag: silicones, metals, a sketchbook, molds, small sculptures, and other materials.
“My main concern was to be with my family,” the 28-year-old artist explained. “I decided to leave a couple days before Columbia officially closed.”
Back at his studio, Liatela would often spend all his time in the studio, typically arriving there around 9:30 a.m. He would work through the night, arriving back at his apartment usually around 2:30 in the morning. Now isolating on the West Coast, he has created a makeshift studio in his sister’s garage and used this time as an opportunity to work on less laborious projects like videos and research. Online classes for his semester start soon.
“It’s been difficult getting resituated,” he said. “And part of this process is mourning. We need to mourn that this is not how things should be. People shouldn’t feel so much pressure to make, make, make.”
Springfield Museum of Art executive director based in Bellefontaine, Ohio
When Jessimi Jones became executive director of the Springfield Museum of Art in Ohio this past January, she never imagined that her first few months on the job would involve crisis management and a temporary shuttering of her workplace. Like the majority of museums in the United States, hers is a small operation.
“Within the last two weeks, I sat with the board to identify a realistic timeline for the museum,” she explained. “We went line item by line item to see where we will realistically have a shortfall, what expenses we can save, and what the gaps are that we need to fill. Within a few days, our board has given generous donations, but we still have not yet filled all the gaps.”
Her appointment at the museum was supposed to be something of a homecoming after working at the Philbrook Museum in Oklahoma for more than six years. Jones grew up in Bellefontaine, Ohio, about 40 minutes north of Springfield. She now finds herself quarantined at her parents’ house, sharing her childhood bedroom with her husband and daughter. Because the museum doesn’t have full-time security, she finds herself going into the empty museum regularly to check mail and survey the building.
The Springfield Museum has eight part-time employees; Jones made the difficult decision of laying off three staff members at the front desk who each worked a few hours per week. “It’s been particularly challenging and stressful,” she said. “But I feel positive that we are going to use this time to have things ready for when we reopen our doors and welcome people back in.”