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Projecting $7M in Losses in 2020, Whitney Museum Lays Off 76 Staffers

Director Adam Weinberg says many of those who were laid off “work in visitor-related roles and are no longer able to fulfill their duties now that the Museum is closed.”

The Whitney Museum of American Art (photo by Ajay Suresh via Flickr)

Projecting a shortfall in revenue of at least $7 million by the end of this fiscal year, New York City’s Whitney Museum has laid off 76 staff members. In an email sent Thursday afternoon, museum director Adam Weinberg told staff that all of the affected employees have been at the Whitney for two years or less and would receive five to six weeks’ pay dating from the museum’s closure.

Weinberg said many of those who were laid off “work in visitor-related roles and are no longer able to fulfill their duties now that the Museum is closed.” Others impacted include temporary employees from various museum departments.

“It is our sincere hope that we will be able to rehire these staff when we reopen the Museum to the public,” he added.

Like many other institutions, the Whitney closed its doors on March 13 in order to help contain the spread of coronavirus. In his email to employees, Weinberg said the museum does not anticipate reopening before July 1.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a museum spokesperson said that Weinberg and other senior staff would be taking pay cuts effective immediately. A representative explained, “We have informed our other employees that we are continuing to assess the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the Museum’s finances, and as we finalize our budget plans for the next fiscal year we expect to make another announcement regarding further changes.”

“We have made these decisions with great reluctance as we continue to assess this new and unforeseen landscape and try to forecast the months to come,” said Weinberg in an email to Hyperallergic.

The Whitney relocated from its longtime home in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to its current $422 million Renzo Piano-designed building in 2015. In recent years, its leadership has been at the epicenter of controversy. After Hyperallergic published a report in late 2018 revealing museum vice chairman Warren B. Kanders’s links to tear gas grenades used against migrants at the US border, more than 100 staffers signed a letter asking their employer for answers. The action sparked months of protests and eight participants of the 2019 Whitney Biennial requested their artworks be withdrawn from view, culminating in Kanders resigning from the museum’s board.

News of the museum-wide layoffs came on the same day as the Whitney struck a more positive note with its museum educators, a subset of the cultural workforce that is often excluded from emergency compensation policies. In an email last night, Whitney education department heads Heather Maxson and Dyeemah Simmons said the museum hopes to launch a new online teaching initiative that could help keep freelancers employed.

“The program will serve our community during the COVID-19 crisis and will enable you, our dedicated freelance team, to keep working, even though the museum is closed,” reads the email.

A contracted educator at the Whitney who preferred to remain anonymous told Hyperallergic, “This initiative by the Whitney to adapt to these circumstances is an impressive example to every museum.”

Despite the possible win for hard-hit freelancers, Weinberg’s all-staff update conveyed the looming sense of uncertainty pervading institutions nationwide.

“We have no way to know how soon after we might reopen or how a longer closure might affect the Museum’s finances,” Weinberg related in his email to employees.

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