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How Mass MoCA director shaped his retrenchment plan

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NORTH ADAMS — Joseph Thompson, director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, spent three days staring down an improbable problem.

How to get suddenly lean, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, without losing the nonprofit's ability to bounce back.

On Wednesday, after bringing bad news to staff, he made that plan public.

The museum will lay off three-quarters of its staff in early April — 120 full- and part-time employees. It will cut the pay of those kept on, including a team poised to rebuild its programming — once fears of contagion subside.

"I am deeply saddened by this drastic staff reduction, which will affect many of my colleagues and friends," Thompson said in a statement late Wednesday.

The museum's financial crisis began after it cancelled performances as of March 7, then shut its galleries a week later.

In an interview, Thompson said he wanted not only to preserve the museum's viability, but do what he could to soften the impact on staff.

Those laid off as of April 10 will have all expenses related to their health insurance covered through July, including what would have been their own contributions.

Thompson said all employees will receive checks Friday as usual, whether they have been able to work or not during the shutdown. Next week through April 10, all workers will receive at least 70 percent of their customary pay, whether working or not.

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"The layoffs will touch every single department and every single floor," he said.

The 45 employees who stay on after April 10 will take what the director termed "voluntary" reductions in hours, or receive pay cuts of 18 to 28 percent, with the upper range applied to top managers.

Thompson said that along with securing the site, the Mass MoCA staff that remains will focus on fundraising and planning to reopen — with a sense of urgency, despite the many unknowns.

"We will do everything within our power to re-launch at the soonest possible instant, following guidance from public health officials," he said.

Though the museum says it plans to reopen by May 1, Thompson said he expected that date to be extended, perhaps deep into the summer. "If clouds part and we can ramp up, of course we will."

In the more than two weeks since the museum canceled performances — which represent 50 percent of its revenue — Thompson said he worked to assess how radically the virus would force changes to its operations.

The shutdown came after many months of work, and costs, to line up programming for the museum's busiest season. Normally, that investment soon pays off with a turn in "gate" revenues from patrons. "Our calculation is that it's not going to turn very much," Thompson said.

The decision to pull money out of a board-restricted endowment dramatizes the scale of the money problem.

"It's a huge, huge bite for sure, which has longterm implications" on reliance of endowment funds. "But we have to get to the `long term.'"

Larry Parnass can be reached at, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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