The Science Museum of Minnesota and Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul — two of the state’s most popular and largest museums — are temporarily laying off most of their workers because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, Alison Rempel Brown logged into Google Hangouts to deliver the bad news to hundreds of Science Museum staff: Their paychecks would stop April 2 through June while the museums tries to weather the loss of $15 million in revenue from a three-month closure.
“It unfortunately takes an unprecedented response,” said Rempel Brown, the museum’s CEO. “Our goal is to make sure we will be there [after the outbreak] and get through this.”
While foundations are launching new funds and the national nonprofit sector is pleading for $60 billion in federal aid, cultural nonprofits that rely on admission and ticket sales are being forced to lay off staff.
Nationwide, the museum community — from art museums to zoos — are losing at least $33 million a day due to COVID-19 closures, the American Alliance of Museums wrote in a letter to Congress last week, asking that any economic relief legislation include at least $4 billion for nonprofit museums.
The closures come at museums’ busiest part of the year for school field trips and families visiting on spring break. In Minnesota, the Science Museum usually brings in 40% of its annual revenue during this time.
Instead, starting April 2, the Science Museum will temporarily lay off 450 of its more than 500 employees through early June. About 70 remaining employees will take pay cuts and compile online content or do other work.
Half the Science Museum’s $40 million annual budget goes to salaries and other compensation. About two-thirds of its revenue comes from admission fees, other program fees, exhibits and other projects. So it has been losing money since it shut its doors March 13. It has paid employees through April 2.
“We can’t afford to pay our employees at this time,” Rempel Brown said, adding that the pandemic brings a lot of uncertainty. “We don’t really know when this will end.”
Nearby in St. Paul, the Children’s Museum, which closed March 14, also announced Tuesday that 75% of its 150 employees will be furloughed without pay starting Sunday until at least June. About 30 remaining staff members will take pay cuts and continue to work on facility maintenance while those in fundraising look for donations, loans and other disaster relief.
About $5.5 million of the museum’s $9 million budget comes from program revenue, such as admissions from about 500,000 visitors a year including school field trips, memberships and exhibit rentals.
Employee salaries make up two-thirds of the nonprofit’s expenses, museum President Dianne Krizan said. Closing for most of March through June will cost the museum a projected $2 million in lost revenue, so something had to be done quickly, Krizan said. “It’s painful,” she said. “The closure couldn’t have happened at a worse time for us because the spring breaks are the busiest time for us of the year.”
“Everything’s changed in our world,” Krizan said, adding that the Children’s Museum is already making plans in case the coronavirus returns in another wave this fall. “It’s a financial hardship for everybody.”
Other cultural nonprofits have also closed to the public. The Minnesota Historical Society, which operates 26 sites statewide including the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis and Historic Fort Snelling, has closed all of them through March 31. The historical society has nearly 700 full- and part-time staff, but hasn’t announced any layoffs yet.