Some good people lost their jobs this month at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History – good long-term full-time jobs, careers.
To be precise, three of MAH’s full-time employees were laid off in early March, leaving a dozen still standing.
Nobody is happy with the situation, even less those who have lost their jobs. Dismissals are often, if not always, clumsy, sudden, unfair. They’re like – no, they are – relationship breakdowns. The abandoned are fully entitled to their sense of betrayal, their anger and their grief.
But what concerns you and me, as visitors, supporters, members or donors of the MAH, is what it means for the museum in the long term, that these layoffs indicate problems for the most importance of Santa Cruz County, in its ability to serve the public in the present, and its viability in the future. For decades, the MAH, as its name suggests, has been both the vault, in which the historical treasures of Santa Cruz are kept, and the showcase of the most beautiful artistic expressions of the region.
Admittedly, COVID-19 is a villain in this particular melodrama. Robb Woulfe, MAH’s executive director and responsible for recent layoffs, pointed out that following the pandemic shutdown in 2020, MAH was largely closed to the public for a solid year. It was basically bankrupt.
The museum laid off its part-time staff shortly after closing, but retained its full-time staff, largely thanks to funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, from which the MAH received about $500,000. . When these PPP funds expired, the MAH faced a payroll shortfall.
“It was really hard to make the numbers work,” Woulfe said of the post-PPP budget. “I think we were just a little too optimistic that things were going to come back quickly, and that’s just not the case.”
Over the past decade-plus, the MAH has seen a wave of see-saw changes in its leadership, from the conservative and traditional – some might say “calm” – leadership of Paul Figueroa in the 2000s, to the transformative leadership, disruptive, brick. -the direction of Nina Simon’s window in the 2010s, in Woulfe, who is still developing her particular vision.
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Every leader had supporters and detractors, although some of Simon’s followers were more like disciples. His often messianic yet radically inclusive leadership was polarizing in the sense that many were thrilled and inspired by his vision while others were appalled, even disgusted. For the record, I counted myself among the first.
The museum gained new audiences and new grants in Simon’s day, and lost longtime supporters and donors, amidst all the change – resulting in a distinct shift in the identity of the MAH brand, which made fundraising more difficult.
Under normal circumstances, Simon would have been a very difficult act to follow. But Woulfe, a Minnesota native, had to carry the added burden of extraordinarily bad timing. He started his job as Executive Director of MAH barely a month before the pandemic shutdown. He’s been in the job for two years now, but half that time he was a chef in a closed kitchen.
The masks could come back, and if the museum has to close again, I don’t know how much we can bear it.
— Robb Woulfe, MAH Executive Director
Frankly, we don’t yet know what kind of leader Robb Woulfe will be at the MAH. He had just learned where the toilets were when the pandemic hit, and he’s been crawling out of the rubble ever since. During this time he began to attract his own supporters and critics.
He gave us all an indication of that vision last September when the MAH launched Frequency, a high-wow arts festival focused on digital arts. The frequency will alternate with another event every two years, CommonGround, which will debut later this year. Such festivals can be expensive to produce and have raised the question: do the layoffs indicate a reshuffling of the budget?
Woulfe says he’s not cutting payrolls to pay for his festivals. He said he specifically fundraised for Frequency/CommonGround and received grants for that purpose. “(The frequency) drew record crowds to the MAH,” Woulfe told me. “We saw some of the highest levels of paid admission to the MAH the museum has ever seen.”
Some in the local arts sphere complained that Woulfe brought in out-of-town artists for showcase positions at the MAH at the expense of local artists. Still, to be fair, at Frequency about half of the artists represented were artists from Santa Cruz. Striking the always delicate balance between supporting local artists and presenting local audiences with extraordinary art from the outside world, I’d say 50/50 is a pretty good score.
By executing the recent layoffs, the MAH is participating in the current scourge of the contemporary labor market, replacing good full-time jobs with benefits with contract jobs without benefits. But if the viability of the institution is at stake, it is not a decision that many executive directors would hesitate to make. Woulfe said the percentage of MAH spending that goes to payroll is higher than the industry norm. This, of course, leads to the next question: Could these layoffs happen again?
Woulfe’s first instinct is to say no. Like many nonprofit administrators, he mixes a healthy dose of diplomacy and common sense with his truth. The staffing issues the MA holder is currently experiencing are temporary, he says. But, dwelling on the question, he said, another variant could emerge: “The masks could come back, and if the museum had to close again, I don’t know how much we can bear it.”
As for the layoffs, you can generate a whole Thanksgiving dinner argument about what’s going on: “This guy is cutting real jobs affecting real people and then spending a lot of money on his shiny festivals and fancy exhibits” cons “This guy prioritizes the artistry and experience of his visitors over the internal tasks he can do more efficiently, which is exactly what a leader is supposed to do.
Choose your attitude. But for now, the MAH is still open for business and still planning big things for its future. However it deals with the bad juju of layoffs and pandemics, every day the place stays open is a small, or maybe not so small, victory.