LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art announced on Tuesday morning that it would be laying off all 97 of its part-time employees. The news is another sign of the traumatic effect the COVID-19 virus and related shutdown have had on the art community.
“We are all facing extremely difficult circumstances created by COVID-19. The desire to support community health and well-being in accordance with government mandates requires MOCA to take significant measures in order to protect the public and the future of the institution,” a statement released by the institution read.
“As a result of the stay at home orders issued by the State of California and the City of Los Angeles, MOCA is temporarily laying off all part-time employees until they are able to return to work when the museum reopens. All of these positions require that the museum be open to the public and cannot be performed remotely. We have committed to paying each laid off employee through the end of the month and we are continuing to work closely with MOCA’s union labor partner during these difficult times.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, the museum said “it hoped to hire back staff when the museum reopened and made the move so workers could file for unemployment benefits and cash out accrued vacation pay.” The 97 laid-off workers, including gallery attendants, and workers in education, audiovisual (AV) services, installation, and retail departments, represent about half of MOCA’s total staff of 185.
The statement explained that the MOCA Geffen location would be closed through the summer, and the main location, MOCA Grand, would “reopen when applicable law and logistics permit.” The upcoming Pipilotti Rist exhibition, the first West Coast retrospective of the Swiss video and installation artist, is postponed until September.
The reactions from laid-off workers ranged from frustration and disappointment to resigned understanding. “I found MOCA’s decision to be extremely disappointing,” Olivia Leiter told Hyperallergic via email. “I was working in the education department at MOCA giving tours. We could have done a portion of our work remotely. In fact, my colleagues and I were working after the museum had closed to provide online content and programming for ‘Virtual MOCA.’” Leiter had worked at MOCA for five years before being laid off on Tuesday.
MOCA announced last year that it would be offering free admission beginning January 11, made possible by a $10 million pledge from MOCA Board of Trustees President Carolyn Powers last May. Since the museum is closed, some questioned why this money couldn’t be used to keep workers paid.
“With the recent and generous donation from Carolyn Clark Powers to make MOCA free, it was a surprise that the ‘lower level’ staff members weren’t given more financial consideration,” Travis Wood, who had worked at the museum as a gallery attendant for two and a half years, wrote to Hyperallergic via email. “Like many people these days, the gallery attendants live paycheck to paycheck and often work multiple jobs just to get by, which was one of the factors that led to our unionization. But as a nonprofit organization, I understand that there are tough decisions that need to be made and we may not all agree with those decisions.”
Wood said he would be interested in getting his job back when the museum reopens and that he supports new MOCA director Klaus Biesenbach. “I think he’s changing the museum in new and exciting ways. I look forward to seeing those changes and hopefully be part of them.”
Other laid-off workers were not as understanding about the decision. “I think it just goes to show how our department isn’t regarded for, it’s disposable labor to them,” said a visitor engagement worker who has been at the museum for over two years. They spoke to Hyperallergic on condition of anonymity. “I probably wouldn’t go back to working for them. Would you go back to a job that laid you off during the worst time?”
MOCA was not the only museum to lay off workers in the wake of the health and financial crisis caused by the pandemic. Also on Tuesday, the Hammer Museum laid off 150 student employees, “mostly front-line workers who staff the reception desk, box office and galleries,” according to the Los Angeles Times. And in Northern California, the Art Institute of San Francisco announced it would be closing after nearly a century and a half. The cause was mounting, unsustainable debt exacerbated by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis.
Other museums, however, have pledged to keep staff on payroll despite shutdowns. “The museum is aware that fellow institutions have made the difficult decision to move forward with layoffs,” a representative for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) told Hyperallergic via email. “LACMA is still planning to pay the museum’s hourly and part-time staff through the closure period.”
Similarly, a representative for the Getty responded to an email inquiry from Hyperallergic: “Getty is committed to paying and providing sick leave and full benefits for hourly and salaried workers.”
The Getty’s endowment tops $7 billion, while MOCA’s is $136 million. MOCA has had a rocky financial history over the past two decades, at times dipping into its endowment to cover its operating budget.
MOCA’s layoffs also come on the heels of the museum’s decision to recognize a union, a movement led by many of the workers who now find themselves without jobs.
“It’s a hard time, but I believe that the museum is a civic institution that provides a sense of community, shelter, and healing. Their decision in many ways went against my belief and expectation from the institution,” John Lee, who worked in the education department, told Hyperallergic via email. “Many of us are finding that unionizing was a great decision. It provides a seat at the table for collective concerns when interfacing with the museum. I want to believe that the museum still has a chance to make the right decision and provide what’s necessary at this time for its workers and community at large.”