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Hit by ‘slow-burning catastrophe,’ MOCA forced to furlough or cut pay for most staff

The Museum on Contemporary Art
The Museum on Contemporary Art said 69 staffers will take a full or partial furlough or a significant salary reduction effective Friday.
(Los Angeles Times)

The Museum of Contemporary Art, after laying off all 97 part-time employees last week, said Wednesday that now almost all full-time employees — 69 staffers — are taking a full or partial furlough or a significant salary reduction effective Friday.

The employees, who were notified by phone Wednesday morning, come from every department of the museum, including curatorial, education, membership and development, operations and communications. They were told the museum hopes to reinstate their positions when the economy stabilizes and the museum reopens.

Only four individuals who work on-site in security are unaffected.

Klaus Biesenbach, director of MOCA since October 2018, will take the largest pay cut, but the museum declined to confirm his salary or specify the size of the cut. Former MOCA Director Philippe Vergne earned about $709,000 according to the museum’s 2018 tax filing, the most recent year available.

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The Annenberg Foundation photo exhibition space is laying off temporary and full-time guest services staff. Remaining workers are asked to take a pay cut.

Biesenbach said in an email that the coronavirus crisis is changing lives in unprecedented ways and that he couldn’t say “how long this slow-burning catastrophe will grow and when it will end.”

“Given these uncertainties,” Biesenbach said, “we are taking significant measures to make sure MOCA’s unique legacy and collection, built through the creative hard work and contributions of so many, will continue to be preserved and accessible for generations to come.”


About half of the full-time employees will be furloughed completely; those taking pay cuts are still working full-time hours for the foreseeable future. All employees will be paid through April 17, including for accrued vacation, and they will keep their health benefits through the furlough.

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MOCA, which has an annual operating budget of about $20 million, made general admission free starting Jan. 11. It said 63% of its revenue comes from donors, trustees and members, as well as its annual spring benefit. The event, which had been scheduled for May 16 and was to honor L.A. artist Simone Forti, has been postponed.

About 30% of museum revenue comes from interest from its endowment, which was about $137 million prior to the pandemic. That should have translated to nearly $6 million this fiscal year. The remaining 7% comes from rentals, which are canceled as of now, as well as from retail and from admission fees from special exhibitions.

L.A.'s largest nonprofit theater company suspends the rest of the season, including its LeBron James play “King James.” It projects a massive deficit.

MOCA had two special exhibitions planned for 2020, each with a general admission of $18.

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“Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor,” the first West Coast survey of the Swiss artist, was set to open to the public May 17. It has been postponed indefinitely.

“Gerhard Richter: Painting After All,” the German artist’s first Los Angeles survey, was supposed to open on Aug. 15. The fate of that show, which opened at New York’s Met Breuer on March 4 and has since closed, is up in the air, the museum said. Among myriad questions: whether loans can be extended and run dates reconfigured.

Last week’s layoffs of part-time workers included gallery attendants, exhibition installers, retail staff, education team members and AV crew. By pursuing furloughs instead of layoffs for full-time staff, the museum said, it can more quickly bring back employees because they’re on payroll and don’t have to be officially rehired.

MOCA emphasized that it is more vulnerable than some other Los Angeles museums because it doesn’t have a wealthy benefactor behind it, like the Broad, and it isn’t partially funded by a university, like the Hammer Museum. It also is not so directly connected to a government entity as is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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“MOCA is supported independently, mostly by individuals, and we have to navigate this crisis in our own way,” Biesenbach said in the email.

“These are very hard times for all of us,” he added. “Nobody at MOCA is taking these decisions lightly. We need to support our staff while also ensuring the continuity of the museum. It is a painful moment. I know we all hope to reopen soon and get back to work.”

L.A. County releases $15 million toward Natural History Museum plans for a new entrance, theater and cafe. Another $15 million is approved for later.


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