Jewish Museum Cuts Budget, Lays Off Staff

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National Museum of American Jewish History | Barry Halkin/Halkin Photography

In light of its upcoming fiscal year, the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) has restructured its budget.

With a $150 million building — the museum relocated in 2010 to Independence Mall — the institution is ending this fiscal year with a $1.8 million budget deficit.

Ivy Barsky, NMAJH CEO and Gwen Goodman director, said all told, between layoffs and attrition — including some people who were already leaving positions that won’t be filled and some going from full time to part time — the staff decreased from 50 full-time positions to 32, ranging in departments across the board.

“We’re in the process of a restructure, so for the last couple of months we’ve been working on a plan of what to do, and the layoffs are the saddest and most visible part of those cuts,” she said.

She said the expense budget has been around $10 million, and the plan going forward for next fiscal year, starting July 1, is to decrease that budget to $7.7 million.

“That is what historically we’ve been confidently able to raise and earn in a year, so what we’re really doing is right-sizing the expense budget to the numbers that we’re confident in on the revenue side,” she noted.

Pay cuts will be made, too; Barsky will be cutting $25,000 from her $324,000 salary, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Additionally, one exhibit, Light and Noir, scheduled for next winter, was canceled, and the museum will be closed on Tuesdays beginning mid-July at the end of the 1917 exhibition. It is already closed on Mondays.

The cafe is also closed.

“We have to find a different business model for it,” Barsky said, “and luckily we’re in a neighborhood with a lot of fabulous restaurants and food options, so we still have in the cafe space tables so people can gather, bring their own lunch, and we still have coffee, tea and some snacks.”

About $1.3 million will be saved annually with these reductions, Barsky said.

Annual attendance was initially projected at 250,000 when the museum first opened. The Inquirer reported attendance at 126,000 in 2012.

But Barsky said museum attendance has been strong and steady, seeing about 105,000 walk through its doors annually, especially for special exhibitions like the Bill Graham exhibit in 2016.

“Of course, we’d always love our attendance to be better, but that’s about mission fulfillment. Attendance in and of itself is one metric among many on which we measure success,” she said.

The museum serves 12,000 school children a year, and has about 6,000 members, 60 percent of whom come from outside the Philadelphia region.

The founding membership the year the museum opened — in 2010 at its new location at Fifth and Market streets, as opposed to where it was housed at Congregation Mikveh Israel — was around 18,000.

In 2012, it was 12,000.

“We invested a lot in acquisitions, and you don’t expect all those people to necessarily maintain memberships through the year. That’s just what the model of membership and direct mail campaigns look like,” she said.

The museum will continue to pay off its building debt of $30.1 million, according to the Inquirer, which equates to $1.2 million due this fiscal year.

Maxine Gaiber, executive director of the Gershman Y, said that museums are experiencing a time in which they “are in a holding pattern at best and there are few available positions at other institutions.”

“The museum had no choice but to ‘right-size’ after attendance and membership projections stabilized after the excitement of the new building. They can now move forward on a sounder footing,” she wrote via email.

To make up for the deficit, Gaiber recommended the NMAJH focus on programming and using its collection as the basis for special exhibitions.

“Museums are one of the few places where you can see the ‘real thing’ — unique objects with rich histories. They provide exciting interactive programming for individuals of all ages and especially in cities with challenged school systems like Philadelphia provide an important alternate source of innovative learning,” she added.

Nicole Krom, president of the Museum Council of Greater Philadelphia, said the deficit is a “shame.”

“Museums as a whole continue to experience difficult financial climates,” she said. “I don’t know that any museum board or director is looking to have to go through this, and cut staff and salaries.”

Krom said there’s adapting that needs to happen for museums, whether that factors into appealing to a wider range of audiences or making sure that there’s a welcoming environment.

She referenced other museums that have also had to slash budgets, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the Philadelphia Museum of Art during the 2008 recession.

“Unfortunately it is a reality, not one that anyone wants to have to accept, but it is a reality,” she added.

However, Krom predicts the NMAJH will recover.

“At the end of the day, [museums] are truth-tellers. We’re institutions that people can turn to, especially in times of this post-truth era that we are living in,” she said. “We’re there to serve the public.”

The purpose of the budget cuts and layoffs is to maintain the long-term viability of the museum, Barsky added.

“I hope that the Jewish community will, as they have always done, support the museum. … We hope the Philadelphia Jewish community really celebrates our museum, that we get to tell the story of the great accomplishments of American Jewish life.”


Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

1 COMMENT

  1. Wow, Ivy Barsky, the museum’s CEO earns $324,000? That is a huge problem. Start there. She took a $25,000 pay cut? How generous. I was going to send a donation to the museum again, but find it hard to donate to Barsky’s exorbitant salary. Get real.

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