The Philadelphia Museum of Art (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) has closed to the public once again in compliance with the city’s new COVID-19 restrictions. The museum, like other cultural institutions in Philadelphia, is mandated to remain closed through January 1, 2021. With the second lockdown, the PMA announced another wave of furloughs, spurring outrage from workers.

PMA’s director Timothy Rub announced the new furloughs on Wednesday, November 18, in an email to staff, which was later obtained by Hyperallergic. Rub wrote that the furloughed workers will include “members of our staff whose job responsibilities depend on the museum being open to the public, require them to work onsite, or whose work can effectively be deferred for the period we will be closed.”

The decision will affect 57 employees, including frontline workers from the museum’s visitor services department, preparators, and curatorial staff in charge of archives. Many of them earn less than $15 per hour, according to the PMA Union.

Rub also announced a 10% pay cut for employees earning between $100,000 and $150,000 a year, and a 20% reduction on those earning more than $150,000.

“It is unfortunate that we once again have to make difficult decisions that will create hardships for some members of our staff during such a challenging time,” Rub wrote. “I wish that it could be otherwise, but hope you will understand that these steps have been taken to ensure that the museum’s ability to serve our community is not imperiled and that we will be able to move forward again with confidence as soon as time and circumstance permit.”

In an email to Hyperallergic, PMA said that it will continue to provide healthcare coverage for furloughed staff who are already covered. “Furloughed employees can, if they wish, utilize paid vacation or personal time for which they are eligible during this period,” the museum’s statement added.

The PMA reopened on September 6 after almost six months of closure. In August, the museum laid off 85 of its employees; an additional 42 workers accepted voluntary separation agreements. The decision to reduce staff was announced two days before the outcome of a union vote at the museum in which 89% of workers voted “yes.” The August layoffs followed a reduction of over 20% of the museum’s workforce (100 employees) in June through a combination of furloughs and voluntary separation agreements.  

Noah Thompson, a visitors services assistant at the museum who earns $13 per hour, is one of the workers who were furloughed on Wednesday.

“The museum should have anticipated the possibility of another closure,” Thompson told Hyperallergic in an interview. “They could have found a way to restructure their finances in order to keep the lowest-paid staff on the payroll.”

Thompson added that the money that the museum is expected to save from the furloughs is “a drop in the bucket” compared to “their multi-million annual budget, ‘record-breaking fundraising’ that they have been boasting about in staff meetings, and an endowment of over $450 million.”

“Luckily, I still have my PIN number from when I was previously on unemployment so I was able to log back in and file again,” Thompson said. A practicing artist, the worker is also hoping to sell some of their work to make up for the loss of income.

In a department meeting earlier this month, visitor services staff demanded hazard pay due to their direct contact with visitors during the escalating pandemic. According to Thompson, the PMA’s director of visitor operations and membership, Jessica Sharpe, rejected this demand, telling workers that it’s their “civic duty” to welcome visitors.

Editors note 11/21/20 1:00pm EST: In an earlier version of this article, a worker said that PMA’s director of visitor operations and membership, Jessica Sharpe, purchased Christmas trees for the museum costing $6,000 in October. This was not accurate, and the statement has been retracted.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...