Questions raised by staff cutbacks at the Exploratorium

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A round of recent layoffs at the Exploratorium in San Francisco has taken museum staff by surprise and sparked questions about the institution’s focus going forward, an unexpected turn of events on the heels of the institution’s splashy reopening at its refurbished 330,000 square foot facility along The Embarcadero.

In mid-August, just a few months after the Exploratorium opened the doors of its LEED-certified space at Piers 15/17, some 80 full-time-equivalent positions were eliminated without prior warning. The cuts included 35 layoffs, 35 positions that went unfilled, and eight reductions from full time to part time, according to spokesperson Leslie Patterson, a 14-year Exploratorium employee who was among those affected. The total staff is comprised of 290 full-time-equivalent positions, according to its website.

Roughly three quarters of the impacted staff members are represented by SEIU Local 1021, and union members are now gearing up to launch a social media campaign in response to the sudden staffing cuts. They’ve created a graphic depicting founder Frank Oppenheimer (above), and are posting to Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #ourcommunitymuseum.

Officially, the cuts were made to solve for a budget shortfall created when attendance at the new facility failed to reach anticipated levels, making actual revenues lower than what consultants had projected. “They had very, very aggressive projections for attendance,” noted Eric Socolofsky, an exhibit developer who has been representing unionized museum staff at the negotiating table. 

“We worked so hard to get in these doors and open this place,” Socolofsky said of the new waterfront spot. “People have given so much,” but in the weeks since layoff notices were issued without warning, “there’s a lot of disillusionment.”

Yet Patterson, the museum spokesperson, emphasized that “our crowds have grown” since the new facility opened, despite the uncertain financial picture. June attendance was triple that of June in the previous year, she said, but the overall attendance figures still failed to hit necessary targets. “We needed to reduce the workforce to offset a budget gap,” she said.

Revenue generated by museum visitors is separate from the money raised to relocate the Exploratorium from its previous home at the Palace of Fine Arts. That effort was bankrolled by a capital campaign, which has collected $290 million of its $300 million goal so far, according to Patterson. 

Meanwhile, several museum employees expressed to the Guardian that there is more to the sudden staff reduction than just solving a simple budget gap. There appears to be a reorganization effort afoot to promote business development, Socolofsky said, and that has some staff members concerned about a shift in priorities that could detract from efforts geared particularly for Bay Area patrons.

Socolofsky said more energy had been going toward “client services,” or contracting with outside institutions to build exhibits, and rent or sell portable exhibits developed at the Exploratorium.

And even as the layoff notices have been issued, the Exploratorium is hiring for a dozen or so new positions. “Whatever positions are available are being opened to people who were laid off,” Patterson said. But when asked how the museum could possibly afford be hiring at a time when it was cutting staff to balance the budget, she said she didn’t know the answer.

“One of our concerns is that it’s moving toward a profit model,” Socolofsky said, adding that it was his understanding that some positions had been eliminated because they did not fit into the new organizational structure.

In some ways, it seems odd that the celebrated 44-year-old institution, which lists its budget online as $58.6 million for 2012-13, would be facing financial problems. Its board of directors includes representatives from prominent businesses including Google, Twitter, eBay, Bechtel, Disney, PG&E, and a host of prominent venture capital firms with investments in the tech sector. Amid speculation that the museum could be changing course, some observers have hinged on the fact that Exploratorium Board Chairman George Cogan is a director at Bain & Company, Inc., a firm that specializes in restructuring, which gained notoriety during the 2012 presidential election due to GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s history of involvement there.

David Barker, a graphic designer with the Exploratorium’s Institutional Media Group who was forced into an early retirement as a consequence of the staffing cuts, echoed Socolofsky’s assessment that a reorganization effort seemed to be driving staffing cuts in part. But at the same time, he said the museum had to do something to adapt to a new climate in which funding sources are drying up.

“It just seems like the pendulum has swung more toward the business aspect,” he said. An employee for more than 30 years, Barker lamented that the staffing cuts could dampen mentorship opportunities for younger artists and designers.

Barker was dismissive of the idea that the reorganization was somehow linked to Cogan’s role at Bain & Co., saying, “There’s no person who is more dedicated to the museum.”

Amid the unanswered questions, impacted and unaffected staff members alike emphasized in interviews with the Guardian that the Exploratorium staff continued to feel like a kind of family. “I think it’s kind of extraordinary,” said Pamela Winfrey, a senior artist who started working at the museum in 1979 and just had her hours scaled back. “I think there are new directions in the wind as well as a budget shortfall,” Winfrey said. “It’s a complicated picture.”

And across the board, she added, the Exploratorium must contend with the fact that there’s a steadily eroding pool of funding for arts and science. “Funders are really having to think about whether they want to feed starving children,” she said, “or feed the mind.”

Comments

and want to remain in my beloved home.

But if I were to move, Venezuela would be among my top three destinations along with Spain and Cuba.

Venezuela by the way, has universal health care.

Last time I checked, the U.S. has tens of millions of uninsured.

Perhaps aspiring, is exactly what we should be doing.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

But I feel sorry for you, loving this State and yet being so ideologically isolated in one of the leading centers of capitalism on the planet.

Must be tough for you.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

The governance and economic system is not what makes California and San Francisco beautiful.

Governments and economic systems come and go.

Mountains, rivers, forests, and the ocean (as long as they are protected) do not.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

It's the political system we are discussing here, and you live in a political system that is the exact opposite of what you believe in.

I would never tolerate that and would move if I felt that way. Are you a masochist?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 6:48 am

personality, you would conform to whatever the authorities say as long as you could make a decent living.

I enjoy Eric's commentary, even though I disagree with him about CleanPower SF.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 8:16 am

But then so do most voters so that is hardly unusual. Eric is the outlier here.

I often oppose authority. In fact I oppose most of the city departments and politicians - almost all of them outside public safety.

Same at the State and Federal level.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 8:34 am

not CleanPower SF.

You only oppose government when your corporate masters direct you to do so.

You are perfect subject of the authoritarian state--compliant, uncritical, self deceptive.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 9:04 am

Otherwise we would have far more government-run business. Americans generally do not want that.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 9:20 am

and awarding their assets to the big banks? Nationalization is a pretty dangerous tool in the wrong hands Eric.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 3:01 pm
No

Because credit unions are local, nonprofit, egalitarian governing bodies.

Official state and county governments are not the only form of nonprofit government.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

non-profit and egalitarian?

There are many entities that are none of those things but that do a great job.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 6:47 am

Eric thinks non-profits are better.

No bias there then.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

I produced evidence, not just an opinion.

Where's your evidence that government nonprofit enterprise is -not- better?

And I don't mean knee-jerk rhetoric about Muni and the DMV, I mean actual cited evidence.

Produce the links.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

Nothing can count as proof that non-profits are "better" without an agreement on what "better" means, and we do not agree on that.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

I clearly just asked you to provide evidence to prove your case, and you have just completely copped out on doing so because you know full well that you can't.

Instead you are pulling a Bill Clinton and lamely arguing about what the word 'better' means.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

pointless asking for it. An opinion is simply a viewpoint informed by personal experience, and my personal experience is that anything that isn't run by a private for-profit corporation sucks in terms of efficiency and value for money.

I cannot think of any exceptions.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 6:46 am

is that you are an incredibly stupid and asinine blowhard who never backs up anything he says with evidence

and then when called on it, uses the **incredibly** bogus and **uproariously** laughable cop out that 'opinions cannot be proven' (total bullshit - almost all opinions can be proven true or untrue) when he gets backed into a corner and doesn't have shit to say to defend his position

dude, when you are even a joke ass fool as a **troll**

(which is a pretty tough result to achieve - any idiot can be a half decent troll...)

then you need to seriously rethink your pathetic existence

Posted by anonymous x on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 9:41 am

As usual, that means that you know you have lost the debate.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 10:00 am

jack ass

my only interest is revealing you for a joke ass

troll

who is so incapable of identifying his ass from a hole in the ground that he can't even be a good troll!

that's a tough one

any fool can pull off trolling

except I guess

you

besides

according to you

evidence isn't necessary

"topics" are all just opinion

so opinions are all we got right?

as I said

my opinion

is that you are making a total ass of yourself

Posted by anonymous x on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 10:43 am
Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 10:53 am

you just can't stop can you?

go for it last word boy

let's see how long you will keep this stupid shit up....

Posted by anonymous x on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 11:05 am

are the real kid who desperately needs the last word.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 11:18 am

this is my game now, not yours

this is me

playing

you

now

get it dipshit?

Posted by anonymous x on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 11:42 am
Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

last word boy?

tell you what

now that this thread is on the other side of the jump i'll let you off the hook

now by all means get in the real last word

that no one will see because when they click on it the page won't come up

Posted by anonymous x on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 12:29 pm
Posted by anonymous xxx on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

How will the staff get public support when so many of them repeat the lies the Exploratorium leadership is peddling? Is the kool-aid really that good?

Everyone familiar remembers that The Exploratorium capital campaign was saved over many years for a refurbishment of the existing site, not to splurge on a new one. The board and management insisted on the move and so got control over prime waterfront property with minimal protests. Then they go on a giant wasteful spree of international junkets for managers to "get inspiration for the move" and other silliness while essential work at the museum is neglected, inadequate managers paid six figures and anyone protesting "laid off".

This mass layoff has been planned for a very long time, but if you think a three month shortfall is to explain a 20% reduction in staff, many who have been there for decades, I have a bridge to sell you.

The Exploratorium has become a shelter for a few 1% types to peddle influence.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

taxpayers will no longer have to subsidize all this.

I could vote for that.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

Please inform yourself before making assumptions. The Exploratorium is a private, not-for-profit institution that does not receive any of its funding from your taxes. You can't privatize an institution that is already private.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

Non-profits are not private in any meaningful way. Why is it unionized, for instance?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 6:44 am

Why don't you just leave it at that instead of persisting with your stupidity?

When this country had a vital manufacturing sector, unions represented a significant percentage of private sector workers.

Your beloved NRA is a private non-profit. Do cities have their hands all over the NRA?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 8:20 am

They are a relic of a time when the world was very different.

The N in NRA stands for "National". We were discussing local institutions here.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 8:30 am

directly with the decline in median incomes and real wages. Political power and the distribution of manufacturing jobs have changed. Germany remains highly unionized.

You said non-profits are controlled by cities. What about the Golden Gate United NRA: http://www.ggnra.org/?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 8:59 am

them, and view them as counter to their interests. Much of this has to do with the US becoming post-industrial, and it is significant that you cite the example of Germany as that remains a major industrial nation.

But in a service and knowledge economy like the US, unions inhibit the flexibility and responsiveness that is crucial to success. The people are not stupid - they know what is in their interest and what is not.

Unions remain mostly in old-school businesses like manufacturing, transport and of course government.

To the other, some non-profits are OK. I support charities, church groups and foundations, all of which do good works and voluntary help to the poor. In fact, they do a much better job of that than cities and their tame non-profits do. I'd like to see more welfare handled by churches and charities, and less by these faux non-profits that are too cozy with the city.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 9:19 am

Back to the Exploratorium!

It is a nonprofit that is NOT funded by the city or the state. Important to know that.

And it's an incredible treasure for the Bay Area--and for education everywhere.

I think the important question is: What can we do to help the museum?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 1:36 pm
Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

Like a corporation they cannot see their "revenue base" eroded.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

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