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A Week After Layoffs, LA MOCA Furloughs Most of Its Staff

Nearly all of the museum’s full-time employees will be receiving a full or partial furlough beginning on Friday.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (via yosoynuts on Flickr)

LOS ANGELES — A week after laying off all 97 of its part-time employees, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) announced on Wednesday, April 1, that nearly all of its full-time employees would be receiving a full or partial furlough beginning on Friday.

“The health and economic landscape created by COVID-19, including the necessary social distancing laws enacted by both the State of California and the City of Los Angeles, as well as the revised timelines of when the pandemic is expected to peak, are forcing MOCA to take more significant measures,” read a statement released by the museum.

“MOCA announces today with effect April 3rd, all full-time salaried and hourly staff will be subject to temporary full and partial furloughs, as well as significant salary cuts. All furloughed employees will be paid through April 17th, will receive immediate payout of their accrued vacation, and will retain medical and dental benefits.”

The statement also said that MOCA’s annual fundraiser, the MOCA Benefit, originally scheduled for May, would be postponed indefinitely. It normally raises about $3 million for the museum.

According to the Los Angeles Times, MOCA’s director Klaus Biesenbach will take the biggest pay cut though the museum did not specify how much that would be. “Former MOCA Director Philippe Vergne earned about $709,000 according to the museum’s 2018 tax filing, the most recent year available,” Deborah Vankin writes in the article.

In an email obtained by Hyperallergic that MOCA sent to employees notifying them of their furloughs, the museum’s Deputy Director Amy Shapiro wrote: “Under applicable regulations, we are required to notify you if the furlough/layoff will be temporary or permanent. We believe it will be temporary, however, we do not know the duration.” It went on to note that laid-off employees may be eligible for unemployment insurance and listed the state’s website for Coronavirus unemployment resources.

The email listed the number of employees affected in each department: “Communications (6), Curatorial (9), Development (3), Education (3), Production (2), Finance (3), Operations (4), Registrar (3), and Visitor Engagement (3).”

“We are saddened to have to take this step and hope that this crisis will pass so that we can return to our mission to present, collect, preserve, and interpret the art of our time,” the email concluded.

The LA Times article noted that MOCA’s financial situation puts it in a precarious position. “MOCA emphasized that it is more vulnerable than some other Los Angeles museums because it doesn’t have a wealthy benefactor behind it, like the Broad, and it isn’t partially funded by a university, like the Hammer Museum,” Vankin writes. “It also is not so directly connected to a government entity as is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.”

MOCA has an annual operating budget of about $20 million, and began offering free admission on January 11, made possible by a $10 million pledge from MOCA Board of Trustees President Carolyn Powers last May.

Still, some furloughed employees were frustrated by the museum’s decision and what they felt was a lack of transparency from the administration. “I wasn’t surprised, if anything I was mad, because there’s been such a lack of communication through all this,” said one furloughed full-time employee, a manager who spoke to Hyperallergic on condition of anonymity. “I’ve spoken to about a dozen employees regarding this and we all feel equally frustrated that an institution that has such a priceless collection can’t pay wages through a crisis.”

At least one museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is considering dipping into its $3.6 billion endowment to pay employees wages. With an endowment far smaller at $137 million, MOCA may not be poised for this type of rescue plan. Its economic struggles are hardly new, however, with a rocky financial history dating back two decades that seemed to be taking a turn towards stability as of late.

“It’s an ugly thing to have to lay off people, but at least give us some sort of heads up that this is where we’re headed,” the employee continued. “The director has posted several times about the coronavirus, but hasn’t contacted staff about it [since a March 16 email]. … Management is struggling to lead. You have to build confidence in your staff especially if you want them to come back.”

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