The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago). (photo by Céline Harrand via Flickr)

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) cut 11% of its workforce last week, citing financial losses brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The layoffs, first reported by the Chicago Tribune, impact 17 of the institution’s 162 full-time employees and 24 of its 49 part-time workers.

A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that 80% of the part-time workers who were cut worked four hours or less per week, and that some of the staff positions terminated included tour guides who work with school groups that are not anticipated to return for the next year.

The recent wave of layoffs has spurred backlash, particularly from workers who believe that the public image of representation and inclusion the museum puts forward clashes with its staffing decisions. Some have noted that an op-ed penned by the museum’s director Madeleine Grynsztejn, in which she lauds the museum’s “commitment to equity,” was published online just days before the staff cuts were announced. (The piece first appeared in the 2020–21 issue of Art in America’s Annual Guide, released in November.)

MCA Accountable, a collective of current and former MCA workers, have also pointed to the sizable salaries of senior leadership — Grynsztejn, for instance, earned $625,908 in 2019, according to the museum’s most recent 990 filing. The group claims that executive staff continue to receive full compensation, after taking a temporary pay cut last spring.

A spokesperson for the museum said that Grynsztejn has taken an additional pay cut in the current fiscal year.

Like other institutions across the country, the MCA shuttered in March 2020 to help contain the spread of the virus and reopened its doors in August. Thanks in part to a $2 million forgivable loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, it had avoided layoffs of its full-time staff until now, and continued to pay full- and part-time staff during the first four-month period of closure.

The MCA’s ongoing restructuring project began last summer, when it converted 28 part-time roles to just eight full-time positions in a bid to offer workers increased pay and benefits. However, the move resulted in the loss of 20 part-time jobs and was harshly criticized. In November, the institution was forced to shut down again as cases and hospitalizations in the Chicago area continued to rise. It hopes to reopen permanently in March.

“The unavoidable consequence has been a reduction in revenue,” said MCA Chicago in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “To compensate for this, we continued to seek every non-personnel avenue to tackle the shortfall and optimized our operations as efficiently as possible. We are now undergoing a restructuring that includes reducing our office staff.”

“We delayed this decision as long as possible, but after nearly a year of closures and reduced revenue, we need to pivot towards long-term sustainability, so we can continue to be a center of innovative and compelling art,” the statement continues.

A layoff relief fund on GoFundMe started by MCA Accountable has raised $13,075 of its $30,000 goal so far. The money will help support the recently unemployed workers, and in particular, the group hopes to make it easier for former staff to avoid signing so-called “separation agreements” in order to access severance pay “and to thus enable these individuals to retain their right to free speech that is in opposition to the institution.”

“We want to encourage museum professionals to speak against hypocrisy, virtue-signaling neoliberal claims, and racist models, and to feel empowered to change the institution,” MCA Accountable says in a statement on the fundraiser’s page.

With regards to the agreements, a spokesperson from the museum told Hyperallergic, “The MCA offered a package that included severance and a standard, mutual non-disparagement agreement that still allows former employees to exercise dissent and disagreement. It simply asks that they refrain from making false derogatory statements about the MCA and its staff while providing them the assurance the MCA will refrain from doing the same.”

Artists, activists, and cultural workers have also expressed solidarity with the laid-off workers. Last weekend, artists Hương Ngô and Hồng-Ân Trương canceled their scheduled performance at the museum in a show of support.

“We learned that 40 museum staff were laid off this week,” the artists said in a statement. “In light of this news, we are canceling this performance in solidarity with the Chicago art community, especially those affected. We honor and appreciate the labor that goes into making an art community diverse, relevant, and vibrant.”

The staff cuts come less than a week after two of the institution’s top staffers, senior curator Naomi Beckwith and chief curator Michael Darling, stepped down from their roles. Beckwith is joining the Guggenheim Museum in New York as its new deputy director and chief curator, become the first Black woman to assume the position, and Darling is co-founding a museum startup.

“This decision is very difficult, and we worked hard to have the least impact we could on our staff,” the MCA statement concludes. “We have an incredible and dedicated staff and community who support the MCA and who will work together to come out of this better for the future. We sincerely thank all of those who were impacted by these measures. Our work to create a bolder, more inclusive museum for all of our stakeholders exists due to their efforts; and we would not be the museum we are today without them.”

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...