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MOCA lays off all 97 part-time employees in expectation of long coronavirus closure

The Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A. is laying off all 97 of its part-time employees.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is laying off all its part-time employees, given the grim prospects for a long coronavirus-related closure.

MOCA began notifying all 97 part-time workers — including gallery attendants, exhibition installers, retail staff, education team members and AV crew — on Tuesday morning, a spokeswoman said. The museum called the layoffs temporary, saying it hoped to hire back staff when the museum reopened and made the move so workers could file for unemployment benefits and cash out accrued vacation pay.

MOCA had a total staff of about 185 before the layoffs. The museum said it would pay the laid-off employees through the end of the month, and it released a statement emphasizing that all of the affected positions required the museum be open and could not be performed remotely.

“We are all facing extremely difficult circumstances created by COVID-19,” the statement read. “The desire to support community health and well-being in accordance with government mandates requires MOCA to take significant measures in order to protect the public and the future of the institution.”

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The initial response from some employees was surprise and disappointment. Judy Leroy, a part-time gallery attendant, raised questions about the $10-million pledge from MOCA Board of Trustees President Carolyn Powers last May to allow free admission to the museum.

“That’s $10 million more money that MOCA didn’t have previously,” LeRoy said. “Why is there not $10 million to help keep the staff?”

John Lee is a part-timer educator with the museum’s Contemporary Art Start classroom program, which provides training to Los Angeles Unified School District art teachers and others as well as tours for students in 3rd through 12th grades. He said the layoffs Tuesdays were “a lot to process.”

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“A lot of businesses are getting shut now, but I expected more from MOCA, something more civil,” Lee said. He thought the institution had more resources available for the community and the workers. “Museums are planning outreach in alternative ways right now, whether digital or virtual. And as an educator, I expected MOCA would [employ staff and] partake more in these opportunities during this time when people need it the most.”

Norris also oversaw the installation of the Kinetic Light Installation at LAX, which helped change the airport’s main gate.

In November MOCA’s endowment was reported at $136 million, but the plummeting stock market has left many arts institutions with reduced nest eggs. MOCA has a particularly fraught history of raiding its endowment to disastrous effect, and unlike some other California art museums it does not operate with a safety net of government funding or the legacy of a rich benefactor.

As local and state leaders ordered the closure of public spaces this month, many shuttered museums said they would pay employees through the end of March. But with that date just a week away, the reopening of museums still seems like a distant possibility. One factor working in their favor: Most museums, unlike theaters or orchestras, do not rely on audience admission fees as a major component of their revenue.

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The layoffs at MOCA come during the formation of a union, but a representative said the staffing decision was unrelated. The museum is “continuing to work closely with MOCA’s union labor partner during these difficult times,” its statement Tuesday said.

The layoff announcement also came with an exhibition postponement: “Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor,” the first West Coast survey of the Swiss artist, was postponed at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary until September.

Museum of Tolerance is not shutting it doors permanently, but the coronavirus is prompting a temporary closure and some employees have been laid off.


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