Art Market

Amid layoffs, Art Institute of Chicago staff pressed leadership for greater transparency and racial equity.

Daria Simone Harper
Jun 29, 2020 4:08PM, via ARTnews

The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Raed Mansour, via Flickr.

Museum leadership at Art Institute of Chicago has come under fire amid recent institution-wide layoffs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 186 employees—roughly 30 percent of the museum’s staff members—have signed and issued an open letter to museum leaders demanding transparency regarding the recent layoffs. According to ARTnews, the letter says decisions should not be made as they are now, by a “very small group of the most highly paid staff in the museum with privileged identities.” The letter was sent to seven of the museum's officials, including president James Rondeau, deputy director for curatorial affairs Sarah Guernsey, and vice president of museum development Eve Jeffers.

In an email sent to staff announcing the plan for the cuts, Rondeau wrote:

We worked diligently to minimize the number of individuals impacted. [These colleagues] are each being assisted in their transition with paid severance based on tenure at the museum, in addition to a number of months of continued healthcare coverage paid in full by the museum.

Several signatories have been laid off since the issuing of the letter. Following Rondeau’s Zoom call announcement of the layoffs, affected workers were informed in one-on-one meetings with department heads over the subsequent three days. The Art Institute has now reduced its number of full-time staffers by 51 people, largely due to economic fallout resulting from the pandemic. The institution, which welcomes 1.6 million visitors in a normal year, projects a reduction in visitors of 70 percent following a five-month shutdown. The Art Institute is currently preparing to reopen its doors in late July; the decision was met with concerns by staff about their overall safety as the institution reopens.

The letter, which posed various alternatives to layoffs, also raised concerns that the cuts, which amount to roughly eight percent of museum staff, would disproportionately impact young, low-paid, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) members of the staff. A museum spokesperson, Kati Murphy, told ARTnews the decision process was “conducted in a manner that ensured the results were fair and consistent with our commitment to equity and diversity.”

Further Reading: How Three Very Different Museums Are Dealing with the COVID-19 Crisis

Daria Simone Harper