Art Institute of Chicago lays off 51 employees

Cuts come as US museums slash costs in response to loss of revenue

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago has laid off 51 full-time employees in response to a plunge in revenue since its closure on 14 March and projections of steeply lower visitor numbers once it reopens.

The layoffs involved 8% of the museum’s staff and affected nearly every department in the museum, a spokeswoman says. Employees were informed that they were losing their jobs in one-on-one video conferences held over a period of three days last week, she adds.

“This difficult decision was made in response to a reduction in museum visitors and changes to our internal structure that reflect the evolving needs of our institution and our community moving forward,” the museum says in a statement.

In April, the Art Institute laid off 25 employees who were mainly in part-time or temporary visitor-service jobs. The new round of job losses comes amid a wave of deep cost-cutting measures at a broad swath of US museums, some of which had sought for months to avoid shedding employees after closing in mid-March.

Last week, for example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art said that it was reducing its 481-member staff by more than 100 jobs, or over 20%, through a blend of furloughs, severance packages and, potentially, layoffs. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York is imposing a 10% furlough on all 159 of its employees, reducing their work schedules and pay by that proportion from July through September. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts has laid off 38 people, or 15% of its 260-member staff, and cut salaries for all employees making over $110,000 a year. The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) allotted voluntary severance packages to 17 of its 250 employees and laid off 22, for a 15% staff cut, after earlier imposing a pay freeze for non-union employees and reducing the salaries of the museum's leadership.

The Morgan, Peabody Essex and MIA had forestalled job losses until this month after receiving federal Payroll Protection Program loans to help cover salaries and benefits. The Art Institute was not eligible for such a loan because its staff exceeds the limit of 500 set by the programme, which is aimed at shoring up small and medium-size businesses.

The New Museum in New York, which furloughed 41 employees and laid off seven in April, meanwhile says it is laying off 18 of those furloughed staff members. To date, the layoffs have affected 27% of its full-time staff, the museum says.

Like its counterparts across the nation, the Art Institute of Chicago has been dealing with the stark loss of income from ticket sales, shop and restaurant revenue and special events since it closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is now hoping to reopen around the end of July, but anticipates that visitor numbers will be down 70% from normal levels for the next year, a spokeswoman says.

“We undertook many cost-saving measures right after closure including salary reductions and freezing all nonessential non-personnel spending,” she notes. The museum has also repurposed some endowment income to support operations, she adds.

ARTnews meanwhile reports that 186 employees, or nearly 30 percent of the Art Institute’s staff, submitted a letter to management this month urging that decisions during “this chaotic moment” not be made by a “very small group of the most highly paid staff in the museum with privileged identities”. The report says that several of those who signed the letter, which proposed alternatives to layoffs, have since been laid off.

ARTnews says the letter also raised concerns that layoffs would disproportionately impact staff members who are black, indigenous and people of colour, and those who are low-paid and younger.

Responding to the letter, the Art Institute spokeswoman says: “While we are sad to lose the skills and contributions of all impacted staff, our decisions prioritised maintaining our commitment to our mission and are in keeping with our stated goals around anti-racism.

“The museum’s process was conducted in a manner that ensured the results were fair and consistent with our commitment to equity and diversity,” she adds. “There has not been a disproportionate impact on BIPOC, and staffing reductions affected individuals in nearly all departments.”  

This article has been updated to include layoffs at the New Museum in New York.