Questions raised by staff cutbacks at the Exploratorium

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A round of recent layoffs at the Exploratorium in San Francisco has taken museum staff by surprise and sparked questions about the institution’s focus going forward, an unexpected turn of events on the heels of the institution’s splashy reopening at its refurbished 330,000 square foot facility along The Embarcadero.

In mid-August, just a few months after the Exploratorium opened the doors of its LEED-certified space at Piers 15/17, some 80 full-time-equivalent positions were eliminated without prior warning. The cuts included 35 layoffs, 35 positions that went unfilled, and eight reductions from full time to part time, according to spokesperson Leslie Patterson, a 14-year Exploratorium employee who was among those affected. The total staff is comprised of 290 full-time-equivalent positions, according to its website.

Roughly three quarters of the impacted staff members are represented by SEIU Local 1021, and union members are now gearing up to launch a social media campaign in response to the sudden staffing cuts. They’ve created a graphic depicting founder Frank Oppenheimer (above), and are posting to Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #ourcommunitymuseum.

Officially, the cuts were made to solve for a budget shortfall created when attendance at the new facility failed to reach anticipated levels, making actual revenues lower than what consultants had projected. “They had very, very aggressive projections for attendance,” noted Eric Socolofsky, an exhibit developer who has been representing unionized museum staff at the negotiating table. 

“We worked so hard to get in these doors and open this place,” Socolofsky said of the new waterfront spot. “People have given so much,” but in the weeks since layoff notices were issued without warning, “there’s a lot of disillusionment.”

Yet Patterson, the museum spokesperson, emphasized that “our crowds have grown” since the new facility opened, despite the uncertain financial picture. June attendance was triple that of June in the previous year, she said, but the overall attendance figures still failed to hit necessary targets. “We needed to reduce the workforce to offset a budget gap,” she said.

Revenue generated by museum visitors is separate from the money raised to relocate the Exploratorium from its previous home at the Palace of Fine Arts. That effort was bankrolled by a capital campaign, which has collected $290 million of its $300 million goal so far, according to Patterson. 

Meanwhile, several museum employees expressed to the Guardian that there is more to the sudden staff reduction than just solving a simple budget gap. There appears to be a reorganization effort afoot to promote business development, Socolofsky said, and that has some staff members concerned about a shift in priorities that could detract from efforts geared particularly for Bay Area patrons.

Socolofsky said more energy had been going toward “client services,” or contracting with outside institutions to build exhibits, and rent or sell portable exhibits developed at the Exploratorium.

And even as the layoff notices have been issued, the Exploratorium is hiring for a dozen or so new positions. “Whatever positions are available are being opened to people who were laid off,” Patterson said. But when asked how the museum could possibly afford be hiring at a time when it was cutting staff to balance the budget, she said she didn’t know the answer.

“One of our concerns is that it’s moving toward a profit model,” Socolofsky said, adding that it was his understanding that some positions had been eliminated because they did not fit into the new organizational structure.

In some ways, it seems odd that the celebrated 44-year-old institution, which lists its budget online as $58.6 million for 2012-13, would be facing financial problems. Its board of directors includes representatives from prominent businesses including Google, Twitter, eBay, Bechtel, Disney, PG&E, and a host of prominent venture capital firms with investments in the tech sector. Amid speculation that the museum could be changing course, some observers have hinged on the fact that Exploratorium Board Chairman George Cogan is a director at Bain & Company, Inc., a firm that specializes in restructuring, which gained notoriety during the 2012 presidential election due to GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s history of involvement there.

David Barker, a graphic designer with the Exploratorium’s Institutional Media Group who was forced into an early retirement as a consequence of the staffing cuts, echoed Socolofsky’s assessment that a reorganization effort seemed to be driving staffing cuts in part. But at the same time, he said the museum had to do something to adapt to a new climate in which funding sources are drying up.

“It just seems like the pendulum has swung more toward the business aspect,” he said. An employee for more than 30 years, Barker lamented that the staffing cuts could dampen mentorship opportunities for younger artists and designers.

Barker was dismissive of the idea that the reorganization was somehow linked to Cogan’s role at Bain & Co., saying, “There’s no person who is more dedicated to the museum.”

Amid the unanswered questions, impacted and unaffected staff members alike emphasized in interviews with the Guardian that the Exploratorium staff continued to feel like a kind of family. “I think it’s kind of extraordinary,” said Pamela Winfrey, a senior artist who started working at the museum in 1979 and just had her hours scaled back. “I think there are new directions in the wind as well as a budget shortfall,” Winfrey said. “It’s a complicated picture.”

And across the board, she added, the Exploratorium must contend with the fact that there’s a steadily eroding pool of funding for arts and science. “Funders are really having to think about whether they want to feed starving children,” she said, “or feed the mind.”