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The BMA's shrinking staff

ArtFinanceMuseumsUnemployment and Layoffs

It's one of the ironies of the art world that major cultural institutions like the Baltimore Museum of Art are home to priceless collections of paintings, sculpture and other works by the world's greatest masters, yet they often struggle to come up with money to fix a leaky roof, pay the electricity bill or hire staff. We'd hesitate to guess the value of the BMA's holdings, but surely the total must reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet no museum that valued its reputation could sell off a Picasso or a Matisse every time the basement flooded or a heating and air-conditioning unit failed.

It's been five years since the start of the economic downturn, and despite the museum's best efforts, the drop in private gifts and foundation grants, government support and other revenues finally caught up with it. This week, the BMA reported it was laying off 14 employees, or about 9 percent of its work force, in order to balance the current budget.

The BMA is hardly the only arts organization that got pummeled by the bad economy. The recession devastated institutions large and small in Baltimore and around the country, forcing them to lay off workers, slash budgets and cut back programs — or worse.

Dozens of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Baltimore's own Walters Art Museum, had to reduce staff and salaries to survive. And they were the lucky ones: Many smaller arts groups, such as the Baltimore Opera Company and the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, were forced to permanently close their doors.

Since the start of the recession, the BMA had tried mightily to keep from having to issue pink slips. During 2009 and 2010, it cut about a million dollars from its budget through staff furloughs, salary reductions and a freeze on new hiring. It also dipped into its endowment to cover some expenses, even though the financial crisis had caused the value of its stock and bond holdings to fall. And it undertook a major cost-cutting effort to reduce nonpersonnel expenses that remains ongoing.

By the end of last year, however, it had become apparent that such measures weren't enough to fix the problem and that more drastic steps would be required. The layoffs announced this week affected every area of the museum, including its library, and the departure of so many people who had devoted years to the institution was nearly as painful to their colleagues as it was to those who suddenly found themselves unemployed.

Going forward, the BMA remains committed to the free admissions policy both it and the Walters adopted in 2006, and officials say that for the moment, at least, no further furloughs or salary reductions are on the horizon. The BMA continues to raise money for its endowment and capital campaigns, and plans for a major renovation of its galleries are still on track. Though the institution has been shaken by the hit it took in recent years, overall it appears to be in healthy enough shape financially to continue serving Baltimore art lovers for years to come.

That's a testament to the wise management that BMA Director Doreen Bolger and her staff have shown in maneuvering their institution through the financial crisis. But the situation is nonetheless a reminder that Baltimore's arts institutions remain in fragile shape and require ongoing support from individuals, corporations and state and local governments. The galleries of the BMA may be home to immeasurable riches, but unless the region continues to invest what is necessary for its upkeep, we risk one day losing them.

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