Portland Museum of Art Lays Off 13 Workers

The Portland Museum of Art (PMA) has laid off 13 employees, citing an effort to reduce personnel-related expenses. The institution in Maine’s largest city follows a bleak trend at museums across the country: In October, the Dallas Museum of Art slashed 8% of its workers, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) followed, laying off seven staff members and cutting 13 open positions in November. 

A PMA spokesperson declined to answer Hyperallergic’s questions regarding the layoffs, pointing instead to a February 15 statement about the cuts on the museum’s website that alludes to the financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the workers affected was John Couch, an IT helpdesk technician. While the layoffs came as a surprise, Couch had an eerie feeling that he was going to be out of a job when he arrived at the museum that day. 

“That morning I checked my work phone and saw I was signed out of Outlook and Teams,” said Couch. “That’s the telltale in a sense.” 

“It was kind of a gut punch,” Couch continued. “I didn’t really know what to do other than just let it wash over me.” 

The PMA’s statement said that financial struggles “necessitated changes in the PMA’s operations” and that both hourly and salaried employees were impacted. Chelsea Farrell, an organizer with United Auto Workers Local 2110, which represents PMA employees, told Hyperallergic that departments affected by the layoffs include facilities and maintenance, finance, philanthropy, and database operations. 

One current employee, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, told Hyperallergic that they learned the news of the layoffs from one of their impacted colleagues.

“I think the museum has their priorities in the wrong place — sadly, [their priorities] are not even on art anymore,” said the worker, mentioning the museum’s $100 million expansion plan.

According to the Portland Press Herald, the PMA’s director, Mark Bessire, will take a 20% salary reduction as part of the museum’s effort to cut compensation costs. While the museum claims the pandemic is the cause of its money troubles, Bessire’s salary has increased in recent years, rising from $406,432 in 2022 to $551,008 in 2023, according to the institution’s tax filings.

Layoffs aren’t unfamiliar at the Portland Museum of Art. Maine Beacon reported in 2021 that 15 “gallery ambassador” employees were let go, notably during a unionization effort. In 2022, the PMA settled with 14 ex-employees who were dismissed during the organizing campaign after accusing the museum of unfair labor practices. The Beacon article also mentions layoffs in 2016, when PMA axed an entire department that included museum store and front desk workers.

The current round of cuts excludes members who successfully unionized in January, a group made up of gallery attendants and security staff. 

While staff numbers decline, the museum is still holding onto its multimillion-dollar expansion project. The endeavor would require the demolition of a historic building next door, formerly the Children’s Museum of Maine. The PMA purchased the neighboring facility in 2019. 

Referring to the expansion plans and the layoffs happening in tandem, Couch said, “If they’re trying to raise as much money as they are, they’re tripping over dollars to pick up dimes.”

Editor’s note 2/21/24 7:43pm EST: A previous version of this article said that SFMOMA cut 20 employees in November; the museum laid off seven employees and cut 13 open positions. The article has been corrected.

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