Art Institute of Chicago Workers Demand Transparency, Racial Equity Amid Layoffs

Art Institute of Chicago staff are demanding increased transparency, accountability, and racial equity from museum leadership, citing concerning decision-making in regard to a new round of institution-wide layoffs and preparations to reopen in late July. An open letter signed by 186 employees—nearly 30 percent of the museum’s staff—urges that decisions during “this chaotic moment” not be made as they currently are, by a “very small group of the most highly paid staff in the museum with privileged identities.” The letter, which was obtained by ARTnews, was sent last Friday to seven policy heads, including president James Rondeau, deputy director for curatorial affairs Sarah Guernsey, and vice president of museum development Eve Jeffers.

Several of those who signed the letter, which also offers alternatives to layoffs, have since been laid off. This week, the Art Institute reduced its full-time staff by 51 people, citing severe financial challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. “We worked diligently to minimize the number of individuals impacted,” Rondeau wrote in an email sent to staff on Friday announcing the scope of the cuts. “[These colleagues] are each being assisted in their transition with paid severance based on tenure at the museum, in addition to a number of months of continued healthcare coverage paid in full by the museum.”

The Art Institute, which attracts 1.6 million visitors in a typical year, is projecting a 70 percent reduction in visitorship when it reopens after a 20-week shutdown. Like most museums, it also faces a shortfall from lost revenue during this period. (A spokesperson declined to specify how much money the museum expects to lose.) These losses are being partially offset by salary reductions, with executives taking pay cuts of 40–50 percent during the closure. The museum has also redirected undisclosed funds from its combined endowment with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, of $1.1 billion.

Rondeau announced the news of layoffs on Tuesday during a brief, all-hands Zoom call, and department heads have since informed affected workers in one-on-one meetings over the last three days. Employees described the process as troubling and unnecessarily stressful.

“The fact that they didn’t just put it to bed the same day is mind-boggling,” a former employee who was laid off on Thursday told ARTnews, speaking on the condition of anonymity for legal reasons. “That’s not the kind of news you let people sit around panicking about until end of day Friday.” He added that his experience “was nothing short of fearful terrorizing” and that his notice call lasted five minutes.

The cuts amount to approximately eight percent of staff and represent departments across the museum. Addressing concerns in the letter that layoffs would disproportionately impact BIPOC, low-paid, and young staff, spokesperson Kati Murphy said that the process was “conducted in a manner that ensured the results were fair and consistent with our commitment to equity and diversity.”

“There has not been a disproportionate impact on BIPOC, and staffing reductions affected individuals in nearly all departments,” she added. “While we are sad to lose the skills and contributions of all impacted staff, our decisions prioritized maintaining our commitment to our mission and are in keeping with our stated goals around anti-racism.”

The Art Institute made its first round of layoffs on April 10, letting go of 25 employees in primarily part-time or temporary visitor-facing positions. Museum staff say they were not informed then about how departments were affected, and that details emerged only after some employees created a spreadsheet to crowdsource data about future job security.

“As time went by and nothing was said, people became more anxious about how their futures were being decided,” an employee who signed the letter told ARTnews, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “That disappointment really came to a head in the museum’s response to the incidents of police brutality, and people kind of lost faith in leadership after the protests.”

“We felt that these [latest] layoffs shouldn’t just be made in isolation,” she added. “Unfortunately, that’s what happened in April—it was silently done, and nothing was said. We felt there should be more transparency both within the institution but also publicly.” The employee noted that additional staffers supported the letter but chose to not sign their names because of “a fear system within the museum.”

The letter is the latest from arts workers to demand structural change from cultural institutions in the wake of ongoing protests against police brutality, prompted by the killing of George Floyd by police officers. Former and current museum employees are calling on their leaders to not only examine cultural institutions’ roles in perpetuating systemic racism but also to take accountability for their allegedly racist behavior. The Guggenheim Museum in New York, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Palm Springs Art Museum in California are among those now facing a reckoning on anti-Blackness within their institutions and communities.

The Art Institute staff’s letter outlines dozens of steps for the museum to “ensure accountable, equity-based decision-making now and into the future”; to engage with BIPOC staff across departments as the museum prepares to reopen; and to “build lasting, equitable processes that holistically support staff well-being, even through cuts.” These span from the development of pay equity structure to greater inclusion of marginalized voices in museum narratives.

Illinois has entered the penultimate phase of its reopening plan, a move that residents are approaching with caution as other states with similarly loosened restrictions see spikes in coronavirus case numbers. The letter also calls for the Art Institute—poised to be among the first major U.S. art museums to open its doors—to address staff concerns about reopening. Among these are questions about whether certain employees, like front-facing staff and art handlers, will receive hazard pay; whether staff might be able to opt out of tasks they perceive as high-risk; and whether individuals might face retaliation if they decline duties that make them feel unsafe. 

The museum did not provide specific guidelines for reopening, but Murphy said that eight groups representing various departments are working to establish protocols and policies for safe return. These recommendations prioritize the safety of staff first, then visitors, she added.

But employees say museum leadership must also support them by showing unprecedented levels of solidarity and communication. “There is a lot of distrust,” said the staff member who signed the letter. “People are feeling very hurt and confused. I’m certainly attuned to the fact that sentiments must be similar in other institutions where major cuts have been made, but that’s part of the problem that large museums have—that truly cooperative and collaborative problem-solving is eschewed during times of crisis.”

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