Wallace Baine: What’s up with the MAH? Layoffs highlight uncertainty of this post-pandemic period
News that the Museum of Art & History laid off three full-time staffers earlier this month raises larger questions about how solid the footing is for Santa Cruz County’s most prominent arts organization, Wallace Baine writes.
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Some good people lost their jobs this month at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz — good, long-term, full-time jobs, careers.
To be precise, three of the MAH’s full-time staffers were laid off at the beginning of March, leaving a dozen still standing.
No one is happy about the situation, least of all those who lost their jobs. Layoffs are often, if not always, awkward, abrupt, unjust. They are like — no, they are — relationship breakups. The jilted have every right to their sense of betrayal, to their anger and sorrow.
But what concerns you and me, as visitors, supporters, members or donors to the MAH, is what this means for the museum in the long term, whether these layoffs indicate trouble at Santa Cruz County’s most prominent arts organization, in its ability to serve the public in the present, and its viability in the future. For decades now, the MAH, as its name implies, has been both the vault, in which is kept Santa Cruz’s historical treasures, and the showcase for the finest artistic expressions in the region.
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Certainly, COVID-19 is a villain in this particular melodrama. Robb Woulfe, the MAH’s executive director and the one responsible for the recent layoffs, pointed out that in the wake of the pandemic shutdown in 2020, the MAH was largely closed to the public for a solid year. It was essentially out of business.
The museum did lay off its part-time staff shortly after the shutdown, but kept on its full-time staff, largely thanks to federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, of which the MAH received about $500,000. When those 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 fast, and they just haven’t.”
In the past decade-plus, the MAH has experienced a whipsaw wave of changes in its leadership, from the conservative and traditional — some might say “sedate” — leadership of Paul Figueroa in the 2000s, to the transformative, disruptive, brick-through-the-window leadership of Nina Simon in the 2010s, to Woulfe, who is still developing his particular vision.
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Each leader has had his/her supporters and critics, though some of Simon’s supporters were more like disciples. Her often-messianic but radically inclusive leadership was polarizing in the sense that many were thrilled and inspired by her vision while others were dismayed, even disgusted by it. For the record, I counted myself among the former.
The museum gained new audiences and grants in the Simon era, and lost some longtime supporters and donors, amid all the change — which brought about a distinct shift in the MAH’s brand identity, which in turn made it harder to raise money.
Under normal circumstances, Simon would have been a very tough act to follow. But Woulfe, a native of Minnesota, had to carry the extra burden of extraordinarily bad timing. He began his job as the MAH’s executive director merely a month before the pandemic shutdown. He’s been on the job for two years now, but half of that time, he was the head chef in a closed kitchen.
Masks may come back, and if the museum were to close down again, I don’t know how much of that we can sustain.
— MAH Executive Director Robb Woulfe
Frankly, we don’t yet know what kind of leader Robb Woulfe will be at the MAH. He was just learning where the bathrooms were when the pandemic hit, and he’s been climbing out of the rubble ever since. Within that time, he has begun to attract his own supporters and critics.
He did give us all an indication of that vision last September when the MAH debuted Frequency, a high-wow-factor arts festival that focused on digital arts. Frequency will alternate with another every-other-year event, 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 budget?
Woulfe says he isn’t reducing payroll to pay for his festivals. He’s said that he’s been specifically fundraising for Frequency/CommonGround and has received grants for that purpose. “(Frequency) brought in record-breaking crowds to the MAH,” Woulfe told me. “We saw some of the highest levels of paid admission to the MAH that the museum had ever seen.”
Some in the local arts sphere have grumbled that Woulfe has brought in out-of-town artists for showcase positions at the MAH at the expense of local artists. Yet to be fair, at Frequency, about half of the artists represented were Santa Cruz artists. In striking the always-tricky balance of supporting local artists and presenting local audiences with extraordinary art from the outside world, I’d say 50/50 is a pretty good score.
In executing the recent layoffs, the MAH is participating in the ongoing scourge of the contemporary labor market, replacing good full-time jobs with benefits with contracting jobs without benefits. But if the viability of the institution is at stake, that’s not a decision that many executive directors would hesitate to make. Woulfe said that the percentage of the MAH’s expenses that go to payroll is higher than the industry norm. That, of course, leads to the next question: Could these layoffs happen again?
Woulfe’s first impulse is to say no. As many nonprofit directors do, he mixes in a good deal of diplomacy and sunny-siding with his truth-telling. The staffing problems the MAH is experiencing now are temporary, he says. But, lingering on the question, he said, another variant might emerge: “Masks may come back, and if the museum were to close down again, I don’t know how much of that we can sustain.”
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As for the layoffs, you can generate quite a Thanksgiving-dinner argument over what’s going on: “This guy’s cutting real jobs affecting real people and then spending big dollars for his shiny festivals and fancy exhibits” versus “This guy is prioritizing art and the experience of his visitors over in-house tasks he can get done 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, each day the place stays open is a small, or maybe not so small, victory.