Donors May Love Big Capital Improvements. What About the Staff Who Lose Jobs?

In a recent column in the New York Times, Ben Davis makes a compelling argument that not only do mega-gifts for glitzy new capital improvements hamstring museums for the long-term from a financial perspective, they also boost inequality across the visual arts world as a whole.  

Though not mentioned in his piece, recent news suggests these expensive renovations may lead to another unintended consequence: staff layoffs.

Check out some recent headlines:

  • Earlier this month, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego announced it will be cutting 20 part-time and eight full-time positions due to a major expansion.
  • In same week, word also came that seven employees were laid off at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky after a three-year closure at the museum, during which a $56 million renovation took place.
  • In early May, the Cincinnati Museum Center announced that 63 employees would be laid off at the end of June in anticipation of financial losses during the next two years while its home at Union Terminal undergoes a $212 million renovation.

Needless to say, each example is unique. Of the three, the Cincinnati Museum Center stands out, in that it announced layoffs before its renovation, envisioning a $6 million deficit due to reduced ticket and retail sales and parking fees. And while a local sales tax covers the renovation, the museum is on the hook for ongoing operating costs.

Meanwhile, when the Speed Art Museum's leadership sat down to create a balanced budget for 2017 after its expansion, one area that jumped out from a cost perspective was the expense involved in running an expanded, post-renovation space, corroborating a theory that we've been pushing for a while now: Ambitious renovation plans can yield foreseen and unforeseen downstream operational and maintenance costs.

Oh, and that reminds us. We forgot to mention New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Back in July it announced it may lay off as many as 100 workers to plug a ballooning budget deficit. 

There are two main culprits behind the Met's deficit. The first is a $600 million gut renovation of its wing for modern and contemporary art. Given the museum's woes, this project is now on hold. As for the second, back in 2011, the museum leased the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Madison Avenue building, a move that cost the Met $17 million in annual operating expenses and about $15 million in renovations.

Stepping back, it goes without saying that many complex forces are in play, here. Each renovation is unique, and we guarantee you that in every instance, the folks in charge will say that the renovations are critical for the museum's survival and vitality.

And yet in each instance, the renovations led to layoffs. Of course, layoffs are of one the costs of doing business in an increasingly cutthroat museum world; in New York City alone, a dozen or so institutions have committed to about $3.5 billion in capital expenditures. 

It's also the nature of the beast. Renovations are messy affairs. There are certain kinds of costs that the brightest minds with the best intentions can't foresee. And what's the quickest way to quickly amplify costs savings to plug the gap?

We think we all know the answer to that question by now. 

But we still we can't help wondering: Billionaire arts patrons know that their multi-million dollar check to a museum can directly (or indirectly) leads to staff layoffs, right?