National Gallery of Art (via Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

WASHINGTON, DC — When the National Gallery of Art welcomes back visitors after a long pandemic pause on May 14, the museum’s gift shops won’t be open for business. Staff who worked in the stores as clerks, buyers, and unofficial ambassadors for the museum may be returning in different roles, or not at all.

The National Gallery laid off its entire retail division last month, part of a move to reorganize the museum’s approach to commerce. More than two dozen employees learned that their positions at the museum were being eliminated during a virtual staff meeting on April 12, affecting personnel across the museum’s two buildings in Washington, DC, and its warehouse in Landover, Maryland. 

Those positions will instead be staffed by Event Network, a contractor that runs retail operations for more than 90 museums and cultural institutions across the country. Some of the 27 employees who lost their jobs have an opportunity to return to work at the National Gallery via Event Network — although several expressed concerns that the new jobs will offer less pay or fewer hours.

“The more a bunch of us who looked, the more we realized, some of these jobs aren’t full time,” one former National Gallery employee says. “They’re not anywhere close to what we were getting with our federal benefits.”

Current and former museum staff who spoke with Hyperallergic asked not to use their names since the museum is requiring affected workers to sign non-disclosure agreements as part of the terms of their exit. All will receive a payout package that includes annual leave, extended benefits, and severance pay.

The museum transition comes after years of underperformance in the museum’s $8 million retail business. The National Gallery shops have sustained six-figure retail losses over nine of the last 10 years, with periods of profit coming only in bursts associated with special exhibitions, such as 2013’s survey on the art and fashion of Russian dance impresario Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

“The retail landscape has been, and continues to be, increasingly challenging for small, stand-alone museum retail shops, and contracting to an experienced professional retail operator will help restore a more sustainable shops operation that will support the Gallery’s programs and provide the best experience for the visiting public,” the National Gallery said in a statement.

Losses at the National Gallery climbed to $2 million in 2020 with a projected $2.6 million scratch for 2021. The museum is hardly alone: The pandemic has walloped museum shops, leaving them with little recourse as their hosts shut their doors for months-long lockdowns that are only just lifting. The Smithsonian Institution laid off 237 employees in October, citing $49 million in losses. Similar cuts have hit the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and scores of other art institutions. A survey conducted in March by the American Alliance of Museums found that 43% of workers at US museums had lost income during the pandemic. 

Yet the National Gallery is an outlier in one respect: Over the course of the pandemic, the museum has retained all its staff and continued paying full wages and benefits. Instead, the retail layoffs reflect a strategic pivot, according to the museum. The new business model will optimize the gallery’s retail website for mobile use, for example.

Current and former museum employees say that retail staffers were continually reassured by management that their positions would not be outsourced. This was a constant worry in the shops, they say, because the problems were so apparent. Fewer books lined the shelves over time; more tchotchkes took their place. Four vast stores with sprawling displays of catalogs and apparel were “over-assorted with merchandise,” a former employee says.

To try to right the ship, the National Gallery has eliminated management positions and let other jobs lapse through attrition. It has brought in consultants to weigh business strategies. It has slimmed the square footage and considered different iterations for its stores, including converting some gift-shop real estate into space for displaying art. And it has offered smaller raises and more part-time positions, according to former employees. 

“These used to be good jobs where you could support your families and have medical benefits for your kids,” one former National Gallery employee says. “These were decent jobs, but they were chipped away at over time.”

Two administrators who have led the National Gallery shops over the last few years will remain in their roles: chief of retail operations Paul Flickinger and deputy chief Barbara Lenhardt, both of whom have experience with the expanding footprint of for-profit contractors in the nonprofit sphere.

Flickinger worked until 2012 as chief operating officer for retail at Smithsonian Enterprises, the umbrella division that operates stores, licensing, and other services for Smithsonian Institution museums. Before coming to the National Gallery as a consultant in 2016 and full-time the following year, Flickinger served as vice president for Event Network for two years. The museum says that he has no financial or personal stake in Event Network and was not involved in the decision to contract with the company.

Lenhardt previously worked as the director of retail operations at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts before joining the National Gallery in 2018. Four years earlier, as the then-incoming president of the Museum Store Association, Lenhardt criticized the industry practice of outsourcing to retail management companies.

“This is my industry, and it’s being taken over by for-profits,” Lenhardt told the St. Louis Dispatch, in a critical story focused on Event Network in 2014. “We’re nonprofits, mission-based. At the end of the day, to them, it’s a dollar sign. To us, it’s did we meet the expectations of our visitors.” (Neither Flickinger nor Lenhardt was available for comment.)

San Diego-based Event Network boasts a large and growing portfolio of history, science, and cultural nonprofits, including the Guggenheim, the La Brea Tar Pits, the Alamo, and more than 30 zoos and aquariums. New York’s Hudson Yards, Chicago’s Willis Tower, and Dallas’s Reunion Tower are among its experiential retail clients.

Consolidation under Event Network has come as a shock to workers before: In 2014, the general manager for the luxury liner-turned-museum RMS Queen Mary evicted a dozen retail stores — most of them locally-owned independent businesses — clearing the promenade deck for Event Network operations.

According to the company, fifteen National Gallery shop staffers decided to interview with Event Network, and 13 were offered positions. Yet six of those positions are part-time, meaning a reduction in hours for some staffers who sign on. All of the jobs come with benefits, according to a company spokesperson. The contractor looks to reopen the National Gallery shops in time for Memorial Day. 

“Event Network offers competitive pay and a variety of benefits to team members as well as career path development and growth opportunities,” the company said in a statement. “The health and wellbeing of its team members is a top priority for Event Network, and they have been the honored recipient of several awards for their training and development as well as wellness programs.”

The decision by the National Gallery comes at a time when museum practices are increasingly under the microscope. Recent labor protests at museums have included the voices of support staff, who are among the lowest-paid and most marginalized workers in museums. Facing uncertain prospects, employees across museums have urged their leaders to consider other options beyond layoffs, including salary cuts for executives. 

“The Gallery highly values all its staff, and treating the retail shops employees fairly and with respect in this transition is a top priority,” the National Gallery said in a statement. “A great deal of care has been taken to provide assistance to affected employees and to make other job opportunities available with Event Network as well as in the new Visitor Experience department and elsewhere at the Gallery.”

Five of the employees let go by the National Gallery are eligible for retirement under generous plans that match those of federal employees. Ten received one-year assignments to help the museum with its post-Covid ticketing experience. Still, others may get their old jobs back under a new employer.

Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab, the urbanism site for Bloomberg News. He is based in Washington, D.C.