coronavirus art shutdowns

A sharp shutdown at the museum

The Portland Art Museum puts 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave as it and the cultural world face the economic upshot of the pandemic

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.

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