An open letter to museums and galleries has expressed “grave concern about a growing trend of layoffs targeting education staff at major global museums in the name of Covid-19”.
Signed by more than 1,200 museum professionals and academics, the letter says the fact that educators appear to have been first in line for layoffs since the pandemic began is "disconcerting, to say the least".
A wave of redundancies has hit education staff at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which terminated all of its education contracts at the start of April. According to a report in online arts publication Hyperallergenic, the museum told educators that it would be “months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services”.
The letter says: “Far from redundant, such workers—employed to give tours, design and develop programmes for schools and communities of all ages—are at the heart of museum and gallery work.
“As those most in touch with communities outside of the museum, educators push criticality and innovation. Their work is regularly used to attract donors and supporters to many institutions.”
Diversity and inclusion in museums will be adversely affected by the loss of education staff, the letter adds: “Gallery education posts are more often to be those in which racialised, working-class people and women are employed to work with communities who are not members of the cultural elite. At a moment when museums and galleries claim an interest in their diversification, why do they de-fund the very people and communities made most vulnerable by the current crisis?
“We find this treatment of educators to be a great tragedy in a moment when their skill-sets — meaning-making, public engagement, community care and support — are more essential than ever.”
Museum and gallery educators and other cultural workers are “rendered dispensable in times of economic or social uncertainty”, the letter continues. It calls on museums and galleries to offer fairly paid and secure contracts to educators and other cultural workers, including cleaners, porters and visitor services staff.
“We implore museums and galleries to take this opportunity to re-imagine—with their workers and their communities—the role of culture in the time of COVID-19 and its aftermath,” the letter says, “And we ask those museums who are already doing so to step forward and speak out on behalf of education and other essential workers targeted by these cuts.”
A number of other institutions are also named in the letter, although some have since said that it misrepresents their situation and that educators have not been disproportionately targeted in staff layoffs.