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Museum cuts 7% of staff

Faced with a budget deficit, the natural history institution abruptly lays off 23 full- and part-time workers.

June 20, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Some staffers were still cleaning out their offices this week after an abrupt series of layoffs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Budget problems forced the elimination of 23 full- and part-time employees, about 7% of the work force at the Exposition Park institution, according to chief deputy director Jural Garrett.

"It was a big surprise, because we were part of the core mission of the museum," said one former employee who worked in research and collections and requested anonymity. "Research and exhibits are the essence of what a museum's about."

Although there had been rumors of financial problems, this individual said, the museum's management had offered no warnings about layoffs. "It was pretty cruel -- we've been good employees of the museum."

"We've had an ongoing, structural budget deficit," Garrett said. "It was something we needed to deal with now. We've been working to minimize the impact of the layoffs through attrition and how we do business. But it did not fully minimize the budget deficit."

The layoffs were spread across most of the museum's departments, including administrators, technical workers and, atypically, three young curators. The staffers learned of their dismissals at midmorning June 12 and were told that their employment would last only until the end of the day. Some have been allowed to return to clear out personal belongings.

According to Garrett, all the employees were given severance packages and offered personal and financial counseling "to minimize the impact on families."

The museum, which has an annual operating budget of $30 million, is in the early stages of a $300-million expansion and renovation project. Garrett pointed out that the money for that project will come from a different fund from the moneys used to pay staff.

Overall, she said, the museum is now healthy. "I would say that we are going into fiscal year '04 with a balanced budget that is sustainable."

While arts groups across the country are short of funds, and museums from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have resorted to layoffs, there has been little job loss at local museums. Depending on the state budget, the California Science Center, with almost 350 full- and part-time staffers, may lay off some employees this year, according to its president and executive director, Jeffrey N. Rudolph.

Six administrative positions were trimmed in 2002 at the Museum of Contemporary Art -- where there are about 161 full- and part-time employees -- and one at the Pacific Asia Museum, with 24 staffers.

Many museums have chosen for budgetary reasons not to fill open positions. At the Natural History Museum, 34 full- and part-time jobs will go unfilled.

The loss of academic or curatorial positions at museums is less common than the reduction of administrative jobs. That makes the Natural History Museum news especially "tragic," said Blaire Van Valkenburgh, the chair of UCLA's department of organismic biology, ecology and evolution.

"There are very few jobs for highly trained people in a specialty field," Van Valkenburgh said. "It puts them in a bind: When someone is denied tenure at a university, they're given a year to find a job.

"And when you fire people in such a brisk fashion, how can you expect to hire the best people when the climate improves?"

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