Art/Design, Key Topics, Lifestyle, Opinions

Museum layoffs – are Art institutions advancing Social Justice?

Or setting us back?

words by: Sahar Khraibani
Aug 2, 2020

The dire financial impacts stemming from the Coronavirus pandemic have shown no signs of relenting, forcing New York City’s leading museums and cultural institutions to continue announcing furloughs and layoffs, with hobbled exhibition budgets.


A prime example, as reported by the New York Times, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is the latest NYC institution to make sweeping adjustments in its layoffs department. The nonprofit museum announced recently that it would be reducing its staff by 20%, around 1,100 employees. The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced similar sweeping slashes in April, including executive pay cuts and layoffs impacting 80 staffers.


However, news broke out earlier this month that galleries, museums, and nonprofits in New York and Los Angeles received hefty PPP loans—which includes millions of dollars of taxpayer money that was given to these institutions as well as numerous exclusive art galleries. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress allocated $350 billion in loans for small businesses to mitigate the financial blow. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a rescue package, was meant to help small businesses of 500 employees or less retain their staff. However, the taxpayer dollars were somehow funneled to major arts museums, commercial galleries, nonprofits, and publications. 


While this was great news for the art world, many art critics were left wondering how such institutions who received the PPP loans were furloughing and laying off employees by the thousands. At the onset of the George Floyd protests, and the country’s reckoning with deeply racist systems, museums were left to answer questions about their layoffs, which mainly affected their staff of color. Where had this money gone and why were staff, especially BIPOC, not protected by these loans? 


Cultural and art institutions far and wide released statements of equity, diversity, and inclusion. However, the public couldn’t help but feel that these statements were all void of any real action when these same institutions had pocketed millions of dollars while simultaneously laying off their minority staff. Are institutions advancing social justice or setting us back to a track of void statements and no real perceivable action?


Now that NYC is in Phase 4, it announced that museums would not be included in this phase. But the Met confirmed its late August reopening with limited hours. Set to slash its visitor capacity to a quarter of its previous allowance, the Met will require that visitors and staff wear face masks at all times, as well as keep at least six feet away from other people.


The reopening of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a great step towards regaining normalcy in NYC. However, we are curious to know how this will affect staff that had been furloughed, especially BIPOC museum staff. Is this reopening a step towards truly enacting and advancing social justice? Will art institutions finally be putting their money where their mouth is?


Photo via The Metropolitan Museum of Art