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Furloughed SFMOMA Staff Ask Director to Draw Salary of Zero to Retain Workers

SFMOMA (photo by Caille Millner for Hyperallergic)

A group of staff furloughed from the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) has penned an open letter to director Neal Benezra and members of the executive cabinet asking the museum to retain its staff. The petition articulates a series of pointed demands to the institution, including enforcing larger leadership pay cuts; de-accessioning artwork; and asking trustees to generate the sum necessary to cover salaries.

Last month, SFMOMA laid off 131 on-call (contracted or freelance) employees and announced plans to furlough around 200 regular staffers by May 1, confronting a projected revenue loss of $8 million through June 30 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The museum has now received $6.2 million in federal funding through the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), allowing it to lift its staff furlough and keep regular staff employed and receiving benefits through June 30.

However, the petition’s authors emphasize that SFMOMA management has not yet addressed their demands and that its moratorium on furloughs through the end of June is a “temporary reprieve” that only “kicks the can down the road.”

“The federal Paycheck Protection Program is stepping in where our leadership and board have not,” they write.

One of the letter’s authors, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Hyperallergic that during an all-staff meeting this morning the museum “stated fairly plainly that they’re still looking at layoffs at the end of this period.”

“And all on-calls who were laid off April 9 are still laid off,” he added. “No change.”

The letter asks that SFMOMA’s director, who earned nearly $1 million in 2018, draw a salary of zero for the duration of the fiscal year. Addressing Benezra, the authors say, “To cut your salary by 50% is not enough — your annual earnings alone could sustain 30 frontline staff members.”

“Top 10 earners taking a wage of $19.80/hour for the months of May, June, and July would save an estimated $825,000. If 60 of the 72 board members gifted the museum $50,000 toward staff salaries EXCLUSIVELY — not to be used for other budget items — we would have an estimated $3,000,000 funds to pay staff,” it continues. (A footnote on the petition page estimates the cost of paying all furloughed employees for the next three months at $3.5 million.)

Moreover, the museum’s trustees, which include the Fisher Family, Diana Nelson, Chuck Schwab, and Mimi Haas, should step in to bridge the gaps, says the letter.

SFMOMA was forced to close its doors on March 14 to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Like many institutions, its primary sources of revenue, including admissions income, have been slashed by the closure that the current health crisis prompted.

Although the federal loan received by the museum may offer some relief, SFMOMA’s workers continue to ask the questions that have resounded across the cultural sector for weeks: why, with such wealth, are museums choosing to leave staff in the lurk, many of whom held tenuous positions to begin with? And why aren’t their wealthy benefactors, to whom a handful of millions represents a minimal fraction of their assets, help sustain them?

“We were fortunate to receive funding through the PPP program of the CARES Act,” a museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “With this additional funding, our staff will now be compensated for 15.5 weeks since we closed on March 14. Our director and senior leaders will continue their salary reductions to support the museum.”

Dipping into the museum’s endowment, which stood at $343 million at the end of 2018, or letting go of some of its collection, were also raised as two possibilities to retain workers in SFMOMA staff’s recent petition. “Hundreds of artworks in our collection have never once seen the outside of storage, and we are running out of room to store them; we should demonstrate that we do not value these unseen artworks above the lives of our employees,” write the authors.

SFMOMA may very well be considering such measures. “Under the new guidelines from the AAMD, we are evaluating all options to ensure the financial stability of the museum,” said its spokesperson. (Last week, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued new resolutions lifting some penalties on institutions that choose to deaccession artworks or use restricted funds, such as endowments, for the next two years. AAMD cannot grant museums permission to access that money, which may have donor- or state-imposed restrictions, but it could encourage those very gatekeepers to loosen their grip.)

The petition’s authors conclude by addressing both the museum’s director and “the dozens of millionaires on the SFMOMA Board”: “It should embarrass you that we are paying one individual almost one million dollars, year after inexplicable year, to run an art museum,” noting that many of the museum’s formerly furloughed workers were frontline staff that represented the most diverse department by age, race, and class.

“These actions support what we all know to be true: museums perpetuate the culture of exploitation and inaccessibility which keeps the industry run by the white and the independently wealthy.”