Staff Reductions at Nelson-Atkins Spotlights Need for Restructuring of Exhibitions and Programming
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Staff Reductions at Nelson-Atkins Spotlights Need for Restructuring of Exhibitions and Programming

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Staff Reductions at Nelson-Atkins Spotlights Need for Restructuring of Exhibitions and Programming

Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art announced they are reducing their budget by 25% to around $26 million. In turn, this necessitated a staff reduction of 15%, or 36 positions, across the entire Museum.

The announcement came from Director Julián Zugazagoitia during a museum-wide Zoom meeting.

In an announcement found on the Museum’s website, “Any decision to reduce the size of the staff must be the last resort. The staff members of the Nelson-Atkins keep our institution’s mission thriving, and they ensure that the Museum is a cultural treasure in Kansas City,” said Richard C. Green, Chair of the Nelson-Atkins Board of Trustees. “Unfortunately, we are not immune to the same forces that businesses and other nonprofit organizations have faced during this difficult year. These steps are being taken to ensure the Museum’s long-term sustainability.”

Amidst this crisis, institutions worldwide are rethinking their strategies beyond only staying open and attracting visitors. The Nelson-Atkins is no different in that regard. What must be taken into account is their legacy in the community. Reconsidering their exhibition and programming with relevant curatorial thinking that attracts discourse should be imperative.
Doing so requires the Museum to get back on track financially and ensure the right exhibition, curatorial, and support staff are on hand to make that work. The idea of selling work, of which the Museum is presumed to have quantities, both in-house and in storage, should be considered.

William Rudolph, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, replied to Informality via email when asked about the possibility of deaccessioning work. He says,

“All museums hold works of art in trust for the public and all museums–and the Nelson-Atkins is no exception–maintain policies about deaccessioning works from our collections that follow the principle that the proceeds from any deaccessioning campaign are restricted to the acquisition of works of art. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the professional organization to which we belong, has temporarily relaxed its prohibitions about the use of deaccessioning funds. Indeed some museums have made the painful decision to initiate deaccessioning to have available monies for operations. We, however, believe that it is a short-term solution to a longer-term problem and that our collections must be maintained as a trust for the benefit of our visitors.”

The Museum has been closed to visitors since March 14 due to COVID-19 and reopened to the public on September 12. With every safety precaution available in place, attendance remains painfully low. To further reduce costs, exhibitions have been postponed until 2021. Relying on six revenue streams, including event rentals, fundraisers, ticketing, the Museum’s Rozzelle Court Restaurant, parking fees, merchandise sales, the Museum also worked with long-time donors to reallocate previously restricted funds. Additionally, a Payroll Protection Loan was secured.

However, the institution has not been able to make up ground. Speaking anonymously with someone close to the situation, they told Informality up until the pandemic; the Museum had an excellent fiscal year with a rise in pledges, which is why they could continue until now. For the most part, employees were grateful for their position and to have a steady workflow, even while working under the possibility of termination.

Since COVID, there was an across the board pay cut, reducing staff to a four-day workweek. Leadership took a pay cut of 10% and 20% for both Director Zugazagoitia and COO Karen Christiansen.

Although some employees weren’t as upset about the news, friends and relatives told Informality the mood after the announcement is one of shock, dismay, and sadness.

Another former employee not affected by the staff reductions also spoke on the condition of anonymity. They noted, “Things have been bad at the Museum for a while. Never experienced morale as low as it has been for these past few years.”

This person, and by no means the only one to feel this way, tell Informality morale lows started several years ago when the Museum began buying out several curators as cost-savings measures. This decision would question the Museum’s direction and how lasting decisions on exhibition ideas and presentations are being made. Further to this, no new people were hired in their place. Although finances are a top concern at the Museum at this moment, the problem of so few curators over the long-term can be observed as an issue when trying to draw in visitors with innovative exhibitions and programming.

This summer’s fiasco with local police using the Museum as a staging ground during the Black Lives Matter protests in Kansas City has also damaged the Museum’s credibility with the Black community. It took Director Zugazagoitia seventy-two hours to make a public response, leaving enough time for people to form opinions about the Museum’s role in the city.

The Museum must make innovative and lasting decisions soon. Among such choices are to consider how the Museum is being perceived outside the “family-friendly” bubble that seldom allows for creative curation and scholarship. Curatorial and educational activities cannot just safely skim current events happening outside their door. They must use their resources to go beyond its role as an encyclopedic institution, and that may include deaccessioning. It is the last resort, but one that should be taken seriously. The trust of donors is essential but does not hold up against the staff’s survival that runs this institution daily.

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