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A sharp shutdown at the museum

Shut down by the pandemic, the Portland Art Museum puts 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave.


The Portland Art Museum announced details Friday of an expansive staff cutback, bringing hard numbers to the painful economic plight that even large cultural organizations are facing because of the global coronavirus pandemic. The museum, including its allied Northwest Film Center, has put 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave effective April 16, a cutback that affects 158 of 213 employees. Because many are part-time or occasional staffers, the cuts amount on the books to 60 percent of FTE, or full time equivalent, jobs.

Being placed on unpaid leave rather than being laid off allows workers to draw on their unused sick and vacation time so they can keep at least some cash flow. Health and dental benefits also will be covered through June. The museum and film center shut down on March 15 and since then “have incurred $1 million per month in payroll and other expenses, without offsetting revenue from admissions, rental event business, retail operations, and other channels,” the museum said in a press release. Museum Director Brian Ferriso elaborated in an email message to museum staff: “This is not sustainable, and we are projecting to end the fiscal year with a deficit of $4 million. The leader of the American Alliance of Museums has suggested that one-third of all museums may not reopen if this crisis continues. We must not let our Museum and Film Center join the list of casualties.”

The museum entrance, with a sign of the times. Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum.

The drastic cutbacks are emblematic of what’s happening in museums, theaters, concert halls, opera houses, and other major cultural centers around the globe. In Portland, the Oregon Symphony has laid off all of its musicians, Portland Opera has canceled the remainder of its season, the White Bird dance series has canceled several high-profile performances and is facing extreme financial hardship, and theater and dance companies from the biggest to the smallest have gone idle and are bleeding money. Regional museums and cultural centers in towns around the state have shut their doors. In southern Oregon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has a $44 million annual budget, has shut down until September, losing all of it high season and the income that goes with it. As the economy crumbles – more than 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks, bringing the nation’s official unemployment rate to 13 percent and its actual rate, including freelance and contract workers, many homeless people, and workers who have dropped out of the job market, even higher – the nation’s cultural infrastructure crumbles with it.

After intense discussion about what has been a rapidly shifting health and business crisis, the museum board and management decided unpaid leaves represented the best option. “I feel a great sense of responsibility to make sure our staff and institution are cared for as best we are able,” Ferriso said in a prepared statement. Ferriso and some other top managers will take pay cuts while the museum is closed.

The museum has also applied for a $1.8 million Small Business Association loan through the federal CARES, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which includes provisions to forgive portions of loans under many circumstances.

Cutting costs as it faces the pandemic, the Portland Art Museum puts 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave.
Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1958), “Diego on My Mind,” 1943, oil on masonite, courtesy of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. Will the show open in Portland on time?

Among staff staying on the job will be the museum’s curators, who will continue to plan exhibitions and installations and also create online daily art highlight features on the museum’s Facebook and Instagram pages while the museum is closed. But the return to something approximating normalcy is still a Great Unknown. That means the timing of the museum’s eventual reopening is also a great unknown, which means in turn that the exhibition schedule is also up in the air. No one knows when restrictions on public gatherings will be lifted, but the museum is preparing for the possibility that a return to business might not happen until late summer.

That could mean a reshuffling of the exhibition deck. Current exhibitions are in limbo, including the sweeping Volcano!, an ambitious show commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and Art and Race Matters, a career retrospective on the works of Robert Colescott, both originally scheduled to continue through May 17. And a late summer reopening would throw into turmoil plans for the anticipated blockbuster Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism, originally slotted for June 13-Sept. 27, and expected to draw large audiences during Portland’s summer tourism season. Other museums also planning to feature the Kahlo/Rivera exhibit are in the same boat, and Ferriso is pushing for a schedule delay among all of the affected museums, a many-piece puzzle that may or may not work out. A late summer or early fall opening in Portland, for instance, would create cross-promotional possibilities with Portland Opera, which has scheduled Robert Xavier Rodríguez’ opera Frida for Sept. 11-Oct. 3.


Portland Opera Puccini

The museum exterior, advertising its Robert Colescott retrospective, which is prematurely shut down with the buildings. Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum

The crisis also throws a shadow over the museum’s $100 million campaign to build the Rothko Pavilion, a multi-story glassed-in enclosure with a pedestrian pass-through that would provide a much-needed link between the museum’s south and north buildings: It would provide much more intuitive movement from gallery space to gallery space, improving many of the current warren-like approaches to several major collections, and also provide much better access to the collections for visitors with physical challenges. The museum had hoped to begin construction in late 2021. Now, as it faces more immediate challenges and with potential funders facing their own problems and possibly revised philanthropic priorities, that, too, is up in the air.

The Rothko situation and the unpaid staff leaves highlight a problem that is common to regional cultural organizations across the United States: Nearly all operate on an economic razor’s edge, with extremely tight budgets that are not well-equipped to handle crises such as the COVID-19 shutdowns. With public financial support at much lower levels than in most European countries, where arts and culture are considered crucial contributors to economic and social life, there is little room for unexpected loss of income.

Of the Rothko project’s $100 million fund-raising goal, $25 million is earmarked to add to the museum’s endowment, which in February stood at $53 million but has since taken a hit with the stock-market dive. That’s a far cry, for instance, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a $3.6 billion endowment to help support its $320 million annual operating budget. The Portland museum is of course much smaller, but its endowment lags behind the national average for museums of roughly its own size, too. PAM’s endowment, spokesman Ian Gillingham said, provides “just 16 percent of the museum’s total operating budget, compared with a range of 20 to 40 percent across North American art museums.” That results, he added, in “insufficient endowment support for critical infrastructure, such as maintaining the building, keeping the collection safe and paying staff.” The $25 million earmarked in the Rothko campaign is designed to help alleviate that.

Portland Art Museum’s refined Rothko Pavilion design, with open passageway. Illustration: Vinci Hamp Architects & Hennebery Eddy Architects

In the meantime, most of the museum’s staff, like cultural and other workers across the nation, face an uncertain future, and the museum itself, like almost all other cultural organizations, is on hold. “Our goals are to preserve as many staff positions as possible for as long as possible, to make sure our staff receive the most assistance possible, and to be able to bring the majority of our staff back to the Museum and Film Center after the crisis,” Ferriso said in his message to museum staff. In his official statement he added, “I remain hopeful that we will emerge soon to offer the connection and inspiration that our institution has provided for more than a century.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


One Response

  1. I notice that, while 80% (60%FTE) of museum staff are on full unpaid leave, the director and ‘leadership team’ have taken only pay cuts. With their salaries much larger and arguably providing them a larger cushion of savings, why didn’t they forgo salary altogether in solidarity with their employees? Seems to me there’s a big savings to be had there. Surely Farriso and friends have enough to get by for a few months without a paycheck, as they are expecting their much lower paid employees to do.

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