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Mass MoCA Lays Off Majority Of Staff As Coronavirus Closures Continue To Batter Cultural Institutions

MASS MoCA opened two decades ago in the city of North Adams. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)
MASS MoCA, in the city of North Adams. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

This story has been updated.

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams announced it would lay off 120 of its 165 employees, citing lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic. The staff cutback goes into effect April 11.

With its announcement, Mass MoCA became the first major Massachusetts museum to institute wide-scale layoffs since the pandemic began. The state's cultural sector has already been hit hard by coronavirus closures, with nonprofit cultural organizations reporting more than $55.7 million in lost revenue in the first week of the health crisis, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

"Our mission is to gather large numbers of people together around moments of individual and group creativity, and that's obviously impossible to do now," Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson said in an interview. "And we don't know when it will be possible to pick up and work again. So our decision was to tuck in as tightly as we could and preserve resources so that we could reopen again and be strong."

It was a devastating development in what has already been a difficult year for the museum. In June 2019, Thompson was charged with vehicular homicide for his involvement in a 2018 traffic collision, in which the director hit and killed a motorcyclist while driving his car in North Adams. His trial is set for early May. Asked for comment, Thompson said, "I can't wait for my day in court."

In its statement, Mass MoCA said that laid-off employees would receive their regular paychecks through March 27 and after that receive at least 70% of their normal pay through April 10. Employees covered through the museum's healthcare plan would remain covered through July. The reductions touch every department, including management. Mass MoCA's remaining staff will work in fundraising, facilities management and "contingency planning for the organization’s relaunch," according to the statement. The museum said the remaining employees would take voluntary reductions in hours or salary.

"We're not a wealthy institution," Thompson said. "People see all these buildings and probably assume that we have a big fat endowment. We don't. While many museums have endowments that are five or 10 or 15 times their annual budget, ours is more like one-and-a-half times.

Thompson said salaries cost the museum a little over half its annual operating budget of $12 million. Mass MoCA's endowment provides 7.5% of that income. The museum draws 28% of its budget from private and foundation donations and less than 2% from government grants.

What makes Mass MoCA particularly vulnerable is its reliance on earned income, which makes up about two-thirds of its budget in the form of concert tickets, entry fees, concessions and space rental. The museum has distinguished itself as one of the region's destinations for performing arts. Ordinarily, it operates a full calendar of concerts and other performances, including the Bang On A Can new music festival, the bluegrass-adjacent FreshGrass and Wilco's Solid Sound Music and Arts Festival. The museum began canceling events on March 7 as concerns about the spread of the coronavirus increased, and will remain closed until at least May.

Mass MoCA is an unusual museum by any measure. Opened in 1999, it occupies 6 massive buildings and 200,000 square feet in an old electrical factory compound in North Adams, a former industrial town in the Berkshires. In the course of two decades, it has transformed one of the poorest towns in the state into a cultural destination, though its economic impact on the still relatively depressed region has been less than anticipated. Mass MoCA specializes in large-scale works by contemporary artists, some of which it houses long-term, like a retrospective of the wall drawings of the American artist Sol LeWitt that is scheduled through 2043. The museum has no permanent collection.

Most of Mass MoCA's curatorial staff have been retained to address the looming question of the museum's exhibition calendar. Two upcoming exhibitions have been postponed, frozen mid-installation. Everything else hangs in limbo. Part of the problem, Thompson said, is that they simply don't know when the crisis will end. "As you might imagine, it will make a big difference if we come back to life in late spring or early summer versus midsummer versus next fall."

But Thompson was adamant the museum would survive.

"Whatever the date is," he said, "we'll be here and we'll reopen."

This article was originally published on March 25, 2020.

Amelia Mason Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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