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Oakland Museum of California Cuts 20 Staff Positions

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The Oakland Museum of California’s Oak Street entrance. (Courtesy OMCA)

While other Bay Area museums steadily reopen, the Oakland Museum of California announced last week it will delay opening its doors until June, and will cut approximately 20 full-time equivalent staff positions, a total reduction of about 15%.

The museum had avoided layoffs since it closed its doors on March 13 of last year through a combination of a Paycheck Protection Program loan and a six-month reduction of working hours, making it somewhat of an outlier among Bay Area institutions. SFMOMA, YBCA, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, MoAD and the Exploratorium all turned to some combination of layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours during the past year. But with a loss of $2.5 million in earned revenue, and $2.3 million expected losses in the coming fiscal year, OMCA Director and CEO Lori Fogarty says it became clear they’d need to slim down the museum’s entire operating budget.

“We know that moving forward we’re going to have to be a leaner organization. Because this economic impact is not just going to go away with reopening,” Fogarty says. “It’s going to be our reality for the next couple years, at least.”

The staffing reductions, combined with cuts to the programming, exhibitions, events and administration budgets, will allow OMCA to reduce its annual operating budget from about $16.6 million to $14 million.

None of this is news to current OMCA staffers, who for the past three months have been able to join in over 30 workshops focused on the museum’s finances and overall structure—and make recommendations about their workplace. (The museum restored its staff to regular hours for the duration of this period.) Last week’s announcement characterized these three months as “an all-inclusive redesign process” to advance the museum’s commitment to becoming an “anti-racist and equitable multicultural organization.” Throughout, OMCA staffers knew cuts were coming.

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For museum employees, this rare institutional transparency has been refreshing but difficult. Catherine Kitz, the museum’s event sales manager since 2012, says, “Staff put their hearts and souls into this work knowing that they may not be here to see it unfold. And people still participated with all that they had.”

Even after many years at the museum, Kitz says she learned a lot from the redesign sessions, especially when it came to OMCA’s budget. “I understand that this is necessary,” she says of the staff cuts, “and the next piece of this will be to not just imagine how this work is being done but to be in it.”

One of OMCA’s upcoming exhibitions is ‘Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism,’ featuring the work of Alisha B. Wormsley. Pictured here is her 2017 piece ‘There Are Black People In The Future,’ on The Last Billboard, Pittsburgh, PA. (Courtesy of the artist; © Alisha B. Wormsley)

Part of the new organizational structure includes a leadership council with representatives from across the museum, not just at the executive level. Hierarchical command/control centers, Fogarty says, are part of the white-supremacist work culture that OMCA is trying to disrupt. She also emphasizes: this is an experiment that will evolve over time.

One early and tangible step towards increased equity is a $9 increase in base-level pay for the museum’s lowest-paid staff. This will raise the annual salary of these roles to around $51,200, which Fogarty notes is above market rate for many of the positions.

Part of that raise is about lessening the gap between the institution’s highest and lowest paid staffers, and part of it is about incentivizing participation in the museum’s ongoing anti-racist and equity work, which will now be baked into job descriptions. “We want to give every position in the museum a possibility to work on cross-functional teams, to have leadership opportunities, to participate in ongoing training,” Fogarty explains. “And we want to compensate for folks being able to participate in the organization in that way.”

As for why the museum doesn’t reopen immediately to alleviate some of its projected losses, Fogarty says the delay till June allows OMCA to finish construction on the garden and campus without disrupting visitors’ experiences. It will also give staff time to transition into new positions and new ways of working together.

“We’ve seen other museums where they’ve had big layoffs and tried to reopen and it’s really hard on morale,” Fogarty says. “We want to be truly prepared to welcome the public.”

Kitz says the community—usually a stakeholder in OMCA’s plans—is the one voice that’s been missing in the many months of conversations informing OMCA’s reorganized structure.

“I’m hoping that once we get our logistics figured out over the next several months that the community is involved in some of this work,” she says of the anti-racist and equity efforts. “But I also think before we start bringing the community in, I really want to see us get our house in order as much as we can so we can tell this story through the lens of being an example.”

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