It's been a fabulous couple of years for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In 2000 the institution completed a five-year capital campaign that generated $127 million for the new Audrey Jones Beck building, in addition to another $110 million in art donations or cash to buy more art.
Attendance was on the rise as the museum mounted impressive exhibits that included masterpieces from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and Copenhagen's Ordrupgaard Collection. The most recent and highly publicized coup was an exhibit from Russia's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts: more than 50 paintings that had never before been shown in the United States.
But perhaps there was no better example of the museum's prosperity than the jaw-dropping $1.7 million bonus for longtime museum director Peter Marzio; the 2000 incentive made national headlines and sparked considerable anger among museum employees, whose salaries often rank below national averages (see "What's Wrong with This Picture?" January 17, 2002).
But despite the rift, good times seemed to be in no danger of stopping when Marzio spoke at a museum-wide staff meeting about two months ago. Although there had been speculation that the sour economy would force cutbacks, the employees relaxed when Marzio began to speak.
"He said everything was going good, 'Don't worry about a thing, we don't lay people off here,'" says Alicia Garcia, an administrative assistant in the museum's special events department for almost four years. "He absolutely said that there would be no layoffs."
But on a Wednesday afternoon in late March, just a few weeks after that meeting, Garcia was called in to meet with her supervisor and a representative from the museum's human resources department. She was told times were tight and museum dollars were being stretched thin, and they would have to let her go. Given Marzio's promise, Garcia was shocked.
"I valued my job, I really did," says the 51-year-old, whose husband was laid off as a car salesman only a week earlier. "I wasn't doing anything to jeopardize it. I didn't get just treatment at all."
Garcia was one of the first casualties in last month's layoffs, but she may not be the last. According to a museum spokesperson, the MFA laid off ten full-time and four part-time employees about two weeks ago.
The reason for the layoffs, says associate museum director Gwendolyn Goffe (who received a bonus of $424,304 for her work on the 2000 capital campaign), was that more resources were needed to mount the recent large exhibits. Now that the museum is back to a more regular schedule, not as many employees are necessary, she says.
"We've had an incredibly big year, [and] given that we're going back to a much lesser schedule, we're not needing to have all those positions filled," says Goffe, who also blames the bad economy for the cutbacks.
"We're just like everybody else," she says. "We're just trying to get by. We put it off as long as we could, but it gets to a point where the fiduciary reality is there."
Goffe acknowledged Marzio's comments at the recent staff meeting, calling them "a little too optimistic." She also admitted there is a potential for more layoffs. "We hope to position ourselves to do what we need to do by the start of the next fiscal year," she said. That begins July 1 for the museum, which has 440 full-time employees and 164 part-timers.
Marzio would not return phone calls for comment.
For Della Taglia, a 42-year-old single mother of two, the layoffs have come at an especially rough time. Employed in the museum's special events department for 11 years, she has parents staying with her while they undergo treatment for cancer. Taglia herself has multiple sclerosis.
"I feel like Marzio blatantly lied," says Taglia, who "literally started off scraping plates" at museum parties and worked her way up to a coordinator of special events. "It took me so off-guard. After 11 years you would think they could at least have given some notice."
Like Taglia, Alicia Garcia also has health problems, and she wonders if that contributed to her being laid off. Diagnosed this winter with rheumatoid arthritis and a benign tumor on her spinal cord, Garcia says she did have to take time off from her job to go to the hospital and to doctor's appointments. Still, she missed as little work as possible, even showing up in a wheelchair.
"I took a deep breath of relief [at Marzio's announcement] because I knew I would be needing the insurance," says Garcia. Now, with her husband unemployed, she doesn't know how she will continue to pay her medical bills.
"I've been extremely depressed," she says. "It's terrible."
But Goffe says the layoffs were simply necessary.
"I feel very personally sorry for every one of those people," she says, noting that a few of those laid off were offered other positions at the museum, and that laid-off employees will be eligible for rehire if there are job openings in the future. "It's certainly not a position that any, any, institution wants to be in. We're very sympathetic."
But for one former employee who had been at the museum for more than 15 years, that sympathy comes too late.
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"It was just so blunt," says the former staffer, who asked that his name be withheld. On a Wednesday afternoon, he returned from lunch and was handed his last paycheck 90 minutes before the end of the day. Although he was expected to leave that afternoon, he was eventually given permission to return the next day to pick up more than a decade's worth of materials he had collected in his office.
"I understand people do this in corporations," he says, "but in a museum, in a nonprofit, after these many years, you expect a little courtesy."
The ex-employee described the mood of the museum as "a pressure cooker" ever since the Beck building opened, with an already underpaid staff being forced to work double time to keep up. The unexpected layoffs have shaken those who left as well as those who remain behind.
"There are a lot of angry people there now who don't want to be there," he says. "We were simply lied to. Peter and Gwen both knew it before the meeting, and he said it anyway."