“Urban Light” by Chris Burden has been a bright spot on Wilshire… (2010 Museum Associates,…)
For the second consecutive summer, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is giving pink slips to some employees — not because of a financial emergency, museum officials say, but because of changes in strategy over how best to deploy resources.
In fact, the museum's attendance is up and its annual operating budget will increase in the new fiscal year. Terry Morello, LACMA's vice president for external affairs, said Tuesday that attendance will total 1.3 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year that ends Saturday, more than double what it was four years ago, and that the budget is about to increase 6.4% to $67.6 million in the new fiscal year beginning Sunday.
But consolidating those gains has not come without pain, at least for some museum workers. A spokeswoman said LACMA's decision to curtail its weekly operating hours starting next week will affect six full-time and 14 part-time museum guards who could face job loss or a reduction in their hours, depending on whether openings arise at other locations overseen by AlliedBarton Security Services. The private contractor, a nationwide company, employs the guards and earned $4.6 million from LACMA in 2010-11.
The decision to stay open six hours instead of eight hours on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays (LACMA is closed Wednesdays) is the museum's first reduction in hours since 1997, officials said.
Reducing operating hours is a matter of efficiency rather than necessity, Morello said. The six evening hours that will be lost represent 12% of its open hours, but she said studies of attendance over the last several years showed that they accounted for fewer than 4% of its visits.
The move also will affect box office staffers, who are direct museum employees. It's hard to quantify job reductions for them, a LACMA spokeswoman said, because the need for ticket-sellers is "fluid and flexible," varying according to how well a given special exhibition is drawing or whether evening events are scheduled.
Morello said that four fundraisers who focus on museum memberships are being laid off but will be replaced by new hires in a reorganization intended to streamline the perpetual membership push while stepping up other fundraising approaches.
Last summer, LACMA fired seven employees (none involved in planning exhibitions or handling artworks) in what museum officials said was a restructuring dictated by changing priorities and a need for different skills, with little or no overall downsizing of the staff because others would be hired.
In May, the J. Paul Getty Trustcut 34 jobs at the Getty Museum, including 19 people on its education staff. The aim was to free up $4.3 million a year for art purchases.
Morello said that LACMA's attendance gains show that the major investments in recent years are paying off — more than $100 million to open two new buildings since 2008, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Resnick Exhibition Pavilion, and additional millions for two attention-grabbing outdoor artworks. Chris Burden's "Urban Light," a forest of 202 old-fashioned street lights fronting Wilshire Boulevard, has given LACMA a beloved marker for its doorstep since 2008, and museum leaders hope that Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass," the 340-ton suspended rock that was unveiled Saturday, will be a magnetic draw in its backyard.
But for workers at LACMA whose lives will be affected by the efficiency moves at a time when jobs are scarce, the logic behind them may not be a consolation. The scene among employees when word of the changes came last week included "a lot of tears and anger … people are still in a lot of shock," said one worker, who requested anonymity because of potential job repercussions.
The frustration was heightened, the worker said, because the cuts came as LACMA was about to unveil "Levitated Mass," which cost $10 million to buy, transport and install.
"People can't rationalize why something cost millions of dollars to get here, and they have to cut people back," the worker said.
Morello said that the costs of "Levitated Mass" were borne by donors who gave strictly for that purpose. Overall, she said, "morale has been really high" at the museum, because fresh attractions and improved attendance have made its atmosphere "much more animated and dynamic."
She noted that it's a fact of life for LACMA and for nonprofit organizations in general that they have a much better chance of raising large sums for glamorous things such as new facilities and special programming than for routine expenses that are essential but unexciting.
LACMA's financial statement for the 2010-11 fiscal year reveals one reason why it needs to be frugal — an increased interest obligation from the $383 million in bonds the museum issued to pay for the two new buildings and other renovations that have driven its attendance gains.
Some of the initial bond proceeds were set aside to help cover interest payments in the first few years. But that reserve is exhausted. As a result, LACMA's yearly interest payments nearly doubled, from $8.3 million in 2009-10 to $16.4 million in 2010-11. The bonds are due to be retired by 2037, using money donors have given since 2004 to the ongoing "LACMA Transformation" campaign. In the meantime, museum leaders hope that investment earnings from the donations already in hand can cover the annual interest.
LACMA will now be open 45 hours a week instead of 51. The Getty Center in Brentwood is open 52 hours a week, and the Getty Villa in Malibu, 42 hours. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is open 39 hours a week, theHuntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardensin San Marino, 36 hours, and the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art, 35 hours. Only LACMA receives substantial public funding: $28.8 million from Los Angeles County in the coming fiscal year.