On Friday, the New England Aquarium announced it is significantly cutting back its workforce and employee hours as a way to stave off losses incurred while the institution is shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The moves, which will affect over 200 full-time, part-time, and temporary staff and involve pay cuts for some who remain, are among the first to take place at the city’s major cultural institutions.
In an interview with the Globe, aquarium president Vikki Spruill said it was devastating to have to make the call to pare back staffing at the institution. “These are absolutely impossible decisions and it’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “This is a life commitment for people; it’s really more than a job. It’s made these decisions harder than other business decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
To keep the institution solvent, and ensure that the 20,000-plus animals are taken care of, involved a careful calculus: 43 full-time employees will be laid off, 50 will be furloughed, and 34 will have reduced hours, effective immediately. Nearly 80 part-time workers and seasonal workers will be laid off as well.
Those staff remaining who are paid over $75,000 will take a pay cut based on their salary range, of 7.5 percent to 25 percent, said Spruill, whose own salary has been cut by 36 percent. All employees who will be furloughed or laid off will receive two weeks of notice pay and will continue to receive their health care benefits for the next three months.
Spruill said this plan will allow the aquarium to continue its operations for three to six months without revenue, while anticipating a slow build-back after restrictions are loosened. The aquarium had a $20 million endowment as of its 2018 public filings. Spruill said the majority of the aquarium’s revenue comes from ticket sales and events, both of which support 80 percent of its monthly $3.5 million operational expenses.
Spruill had intended to spend 2020 celebrating the aquarium’s 50th anniversary. Now, she has been on calls with zoo and aquarium directors throughout the country as they struggle to figure out what the future looks like for their institutions. Earlier this week, the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced it was furloughing about 100 workers and reducing the salaries of those that remained. The San Antonio Zoo has also furloughed half its staff, and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden said it would lay off all of its 174 part-time and seasonal employees.
“We’re unique from other cultural institutions and museums in the city in that even though we’re closed, the animal care continues,” Spruill said. “But I don’t think any of us ever imagined a zero-revenue scenario."
Museums and cultural institutions big and small are wrestling with the implications of the sudden disappearance of all visitors, with no return date in site.
Dan Yeager, executive director of the New England Museum Association, said that, for many of his members, the first week of the shutdown was centered on making sure people were safe and healthy and facilities were secure. But gradually, in the days and weeks since, financial realities have begun to set in.
“This is a moment in time where museums are really fully comprehending the idea that they’re small businesses, in addition to being cultural institutions,” Yeager said.
Many museums derive significant revenue from events — hosting large dinners, weddings, and other ceremonies — especially in summertime. With no way of knowing how long these shutdowns might last, many are trying to reschedule to later dates but also realize many of those events may simply be canceled.
“People have really had to finesse how they’re going to manage events,” Yeager said. “Often they already have deposits in hand. They need to work with whatever the events might need.”
Nonprofit museums are eligible for federal stimulus funds, Yeager notes, but it’s not clear they’ll be enough to sustain institutions through the long, lean months likely to come.
An additional challenge is that while many institutions are making moves to furlough and lay off staff — workers who in many cases have deep expertise in a given subject — they’re also simultaneously launching digital platforms to try and keep their members and supporters engaged.
Suzanne Matus, the aquarium’s spokeswoman, said that a surge in online engagement on the aquarium’s social media pages has been one of the few bright spots in the crisis. Animal handlers have been posting daily “virtual visit” videos on Facebook at 11 a.m., and hosting live Q&A sessions with researchers for the last three weeks. The engagement on the page is up 157 percent, she said, while its audience growth rate is up 2,002 percent.
Spruill said she believes this type of virtual learning will be important in extending the organization’s mission as it looks to the future. But what that future will look like is still unclear.
One of the hardest things for museums and cultural institutions at this moment, Yeager said, is that they are accustomed to providing a sort of common ground, a place where all can go during times of crisis.
“Museums have always served as community anchors in times of trouble,” he said. “In this case, we can’t play that function at all.”