Nelson-Atkins Lays Off 36 Employees Prompting Pushback

Officials Cite Need for Sustainability in the Face of a Petition and Other Criticisms

“A Summer’s Day at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art” (2018) by Jon Dickson. Jon Dickson is a landscape and architecture photographer residing in the Greater St Louis, Missouri area.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s recent decision to lay off 36 employees, including photography curator Jane L. Aspinwall, ignited a controversy that has inflamed the Kansas City art world. 

The museum announced October 21 that it was trimming its staff by 15 percent and reducing its budget by 25 percent, to about $26 million, due to the “debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

In a news release, the museum said donors had continued to be generous with private donations, and that it had secured a Payroll Protection Program loan, but its six-month (mid-March to mid-September) closure due to COVID had cut off revenue it would have received from event rentals, fundraisers, ticketing, the Rozelle Court Restaurant, parking fees and merchandise sales. 

Even after re-opening, the museum was suffering from the impacts of “dramatically lower” attendance and the cancellation of all traveling exhibitions, in-person tours, classes, public programs and festivals, the release said.    

“Any decision to reduce the size of the staff must be the last resort,” Richard C. Green, chair of the Nelson-Atkins Board of Trustees, said in the release. “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. 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.”  

But Green’s words provided no comfort to Keith Davis, the Nelson-Atkins photography department founder and senior curator. Davis, who accompanied the Hallmark photographic collection to the museum, decried the layoffs and announced his resignation in a November 3 e-mail sent to “Our Friends in the Photography World.” 

In his e-mail, Davis said that to his “surprise and shock,” the layoff roster included Aspinwall. “This was utterly unexpected for a whole host of reasons, including the fact that Jane has the longest tenure in our department, has the deepest knowledge of the collection, has done a series of brilliant projects, and, not incidentally, the fact that our department was funded by outside money from the generous Hall Family Foundation.” 

Davis said he had tried to save Aspinwall’s position but to no avail. “As a consequence, I resigned my position as the museum’s senior curator of photography, he said. 

The photography department now is down to one curator, Davis said. “I very sincerely wish the new department well,” he added. 

Art critic and historian Tyler Green expressed dismay about the Nelson-Atkins cuts in a Nov. 4 tweet.  Green said “Aspinwall ranks among America’s top curators and historians of 19thC photography,” and that the layoffs represented “a spectacularly horrid institutional self-destruction. The N-A has long had one of America’s top photography departments. Now two-thirds of it is gone.” 

The Hall Family Foundation announced Davis’ resignation November 5. In a release, the foundation said Davis “joined Hallmark in August 1979 to become curator of the Hallmark Photographic Collection, which at that time included 650 works by 35 artists. Under Keith’s direction, the collection grew to 6,500 works by nearly 900 artists at the time Hallmark transferred its collection to the Nelson-Atkins in December 2005.” 

The foundation said Davis “led the further development of this collection that now contains over 15,000 images and is regarded as one of the finest collections of photography in the country.” 

Mayra Aguirre, president of the Hall Family Foundation, said in the release that the foundation has “great confidence that the Nelson-Atkins will continue to build on the legacy of this photography collection.” 

But a petition posted on actionnetwork.org, “Nelson-Atkins Workers Deserve Respect and Dignity,” stands in stark contrast to the upbeat views expressed by the museum and the Hall Family Foundation. 

“While we do our best to create a safe environment for visitors to engage with our collection, we are placed in an unstable, unsafe position by a lack of equity and transparency in decision-making,” the introduction to the petition states. “This was made devastatingly clear by the sudden announcement of a reduction of force, when 36 of our fellow workers found their positions terminated without warning in the midst of a global pandemic.” 

The petition calls on Nelson-Atkins top executives and the board of trustees to take several actions, including:  

  • Prioritize safety for staff, with a path to personal, physical and financial safety in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, by ensuring that no further layoffs are made through Fiscal Year 2021.
  • Be transparent in decision-making, starting by giving staff a seat at the table in meetings that explain criteria for budgeting decisions both in Fiscal Year 2020 and planning for Fiscal Year 2021.

In an interview with “KC Studio,” Elizabeth Fulder Wilson, a longtime Nelson-Atkins Museum supporter and wife of former Nelson-Atkins director/CEO Marc Wilson, said the layoffs “opened a window and an opportunity to pay attention to larger concerns that I’ve had over many years about what’s happening to the Nelson.”  

Wilson said the museum has been laying off staff, including curators, for several years. “It’s like a hospital laying off doctors.” 

Since spring 2016, 11 curators have left or were cut from their positions at the Nelson-Atkins, amounting to a reduction of more than 50 percent. They include the former heads of African art, Chinese art, Native American art, photography, contemporary art, decorative arts and ancient art. To date, none of those positions has been filled, and the museum is now in a hiring freeze “as part of the museum’s sustainability framework,” according to deputy director of curatorial affairs, William Keyse Rudolph.  

Wilson said she has “serious concerns” about the future of the museum. “Most organizations do not save money by laying off their most essential staff. They had a whole bevy of curatorial departments. And one by one, those departments are empty of curators.” 

A former Nelson-Atkins trustee who requested anonymity also criticized the reduction of the museum’s curatorial ranks over the past several years. “To have this many positions go unfilled for a such a long period of time is damaging to our museum, our reputation, our position as one of the finest museums in the country.”        

Graham Carroll, integrated marketing coordinator at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, said it had not laid off employees during the pandemic but had furloughed some employees for whom there was no work. “Many of them since have returned to work,” he said. 

Kemper Museum closed due to COVID from March 14 until October 21, but Carroll said it’s difficult to compare the Nelson-Atkins Museum to Kemper Museum because the Nelson-Atkins is so much larger. “We’re in the same neighborhood, and we serve the same population, but they are quite different as far as scale goes. I think that’s reflected in our financial considerations.” 

Julián Zugazagoitia, Nelson-Atkins director and CEO, said the layoffs had been “unfortunate,” and constituted a “very difficult and very hard decision to make. But we had to do those hard decisions to maintain the ecosystem of the museum, to continue doing our mission. 

When asked to respond to Davis’ resignation, Zugazagoitia said Davis is a “great curator. He created the collection that Hallmark gave to the museum that we are very, very proud of, and he should be very proud too. 

In response to the petition on behalf of Nelson-Atkins employees, Zugazagoitia said “many of the things that they’re requesting are things that we are already involved in and we’re doing. We are looking at those things, and all aspects of the systems of the museum and its operations with a deeper look. Definitely, all of that resonates very loudly with us.” 

Regarding Wilson’s criticism about cuts to the curatorial staff, Zugazagoitia said “the program speaks for itself. The museum is the function of a lot of people in a very intellectual and a very professional way. You see it manifested through exhibitions, public programs, lectures. 

Zugazagoitia said if not for COVID, the museum would have had 600,000 visitors during the fiscal year that ended April 30. It was our best year ever. When I started at this museum almost 10 years ago, we had 300,000 visitors. So, I would let visitors speak for themselves.” 

Amid the ongoing pandemic and all the tumult surrounding the layoffs, Zugazagoitia hopes the public will come back to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. 

“We have put in a lot of safety measures,” he said. “We have slotted times and have asked everyone to wear a mask. Come and visit.” 

About The Author: Julius Karash

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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