The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago laid off dozens of workers on Thursday, just days after two of the museums’ most senior curators announced plans to depart. According to an email sent to the museum’s staff that was obtained by ARTnews, 17 out of 162 full-time employees, or 11 percent of that workforce, were laid off across departments due to budgetary constraints. Another 24 out of 49 part-time employees were also laid off.
The Chicago Tribune first reported the cuts just days after an announcement that the museum’s chief curator Michael Darling was stepping down. The week before, senior curator Naomi Beckwith revealed that she would be leaving to become the Guggenheim Museum’s deputy director and chief curator.
In a statement to ARTnews, the MCA Chicago said, “Throughout the pandemic, we did our best to protect both the well-being and financial security of our employees. We continued to pay all of our employees, including part-time staff, during the first four-month period of closure. However, as the pandemic dragged on with a second and third wave of cases, the museum was forced to close again in the interest of public health in mid-November.
“The unavoidable consequence has been a reduction in revenue,” the statement continued. “To compensate for this, we continued to seek every non-personnel avenue to tackle the shortfall and optimized our operations as efficiently as possible. We are now undergoing a restructuring that includes reducing our office staff.” The museum said that the layoffs were part of “pivot towards long-term sustainability.”
Like many museums, the MCA Chicago has been severely impacted by the pandemic. Initially closed to the public in March, it reopened in July for four months under strict guidelines—a decision that some employees said risked the health of onsite staff—and closed again in November. According to another email sent to staff Thursday that was also obtained by ARTnews, the museum is “facing budget challenges including a significant deficit—the first time in the MCA’s history—a rapid spend down of our cash and 10 months of almost zero revenue.”
The museum had previously avoided layoffs and furloughs during the pandemic, which, by last summer, led to mass staff reductions at many major art museums across the U.S., including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Center. In some cases, laid-off workers alleged that the cuts disproportionately impacted BIPOC staff and went on to form crowdfunding campaigns to support themselves—a measure the laid-off MCA workers have also undertaken.
In April, the MCA received a $2 million Paycheck Protection Program loan to sustain operations through the end of the fiscal year. However, last August it introduced an employment model that resulted in what a spokesperson called a “reduction in force.” All part-time visitor experience positions were converted to full-time ones, effectively squeezing out more than 20 employees. The change, which provided front-facing positions with improved wages and benefits, was intended to “help evolve the museum towards being a more equitable institution,” MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn told ARTnews at the time.
Last week’s layoffs occurred just six weeks before the museum plans to reopen to the public on March 2. “It was completely out of the blue. Another colleague described it as ‘intensive whiplash,’” John Harness, a former employee affected by the cuts, told ARTnews. “Literally the day before, my department had meetings planning the next few months. We were all revving up for the next period.”
Harness is among the dozen part-time artist guides—the entire team—who were laid off. Their duties typically include giving tours but shifted during the pandemic to focus on creating materials for educators to use for distance learning. The museum said that the guides often work with school groups that it did not anticipate returning this year.
Also affected were part-time technicians, full-time employees in visitor services, learning, and other departments—including several who were part of the Armory Club, an honored group of staff who have been with the museum for more than 10 years. The museum has offered severance to those who sign a separation agreement that includes a mutual nondisparagement clause.
The layoffs also come at a time when the museum is facing criticism. Dozens of employees, organizing under the collective name MCAccountable, have called on the museum to demonstrate transparency between leadership and all staff. (According to a representative for the group, just two of its members are still employed by the museum following its recent round of layoffs.) Their demands include a plan for more equitable hiring practices and a commitment to restructuring pay scales. In November, close to 100 Chicago artists, many of whom are in the museum’s ongoing exhibition “The Long Dream,” sent Grynsztejn, the board, and curators their own letter in solidarity. Several, including Aram Han Sifuentes, Folayemi Wilson, and Maria Gaspar, declined to participate in the exhibition. And on Saturday, artists Hương Ngô and Hồng-Ân Trương canceled their scheduled performance at the museum in support of those who were laid off.
In a November letter published on the MCA’s website, Grynsztejn wrote: “I am grateful to every artist that demands that the MCA be a living example of equity. We want nothing less than that for ourselves and for every community that we are a part of.”
Arts workers say the museum has failed to properly address their demands while publicly pledging its commitment to equity within staffing practices. “When something happens, the MCA can be very quick to respond with a message that feels like it’s using all the correct language—all this neoliberal speak that’s softening the blow,” said Marcela Torres, an artist guide who was laid off Thursday after four years of employment. “But at the same time, they won’t meet with organizers.” (An MCA spokesperson declined to confirm this.)
For months, staff have proposed solutions to help the museum weather the financial blows of the pandemic, including pay cuts from leadership. In an email from April that was obtained by ARTnews, Grynsztejn said that 10 senior leaders at the museum, including herself, had taken pay cuts. Grynsztejn told employees in a meeting last week that high earners saw their salaries return to their original rates at the beginning of the fiscal year, in July, according to multiple people present. (The museum spokesperson declined to comment on this.) According to publicly available tax forms, the director earned $625,908 in compensation in 2019.
“I’ve been working with museums for 10 years,” Harness said. “This has squeezed out of me the very last of my hopes that museums are some kind of change vehicle. Institutional critique is over. We need to move on to dismantle the institution.”