Nelson-Atkins photography curator quits in protest over layoffs

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The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a beloved Kansas City institution that brings art and culture to the public for free. Like many businesses and public spaces, the museum closed this spring due to COVID-19, and reopened its doors Sept. 12. While admission is still free, art lovers will need to reserve a timed ticket and adhere to social distancing rules, including wearing masks, in order to visit. 

These changes aren’t the only ones the museum has had to make in this unprecedented year. On Oct. 21, the museum released a statement that it was cutting its budget and laying off employees due to the financial stress of the pandemic. During the closure from March to September, the museum reported losing revenue from events, special exhibit ticketing and other avenues, such that they would need to cut their budget by 25 percent to stay afloat. Along with these budget cuts came the need to layoff 36 employees

Photography curator Keith Davis resigned after photography curator Jane L. Aspinwall was included in the cuts of employees. Aspinwall was the longest standing curator of the photography department. The photography department at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art received critical acclaim after acquiring the Hallmark Photographic Collection in 2005, which Davis was a part of. Davis was one of three long-time staff members who had built the Nelson-Atkins photography department into what it is today. 

Davis had been curator of the Hallmark Fine Arts collection since 1979, and became curator of the collection at the Nelson-Atkins when it was gifted to them. Davis cited that he had lobbied for Aspinwall to be retained at the museum for 10 days, but was not successful, sparking his resignation. The only curator left in the museum’s photography department is April M. Watson. 

The cuts by the museum occurred even after they received a small business loan from the government, which allowed them to pay employees during the closure. The museum largely operates on private donations, but these funds were not enough to make up for the amount of money lost during the lockdown. The Director of the museum, Julian Zugazagoita, commented in the statement released by the museum that it is the last option to cut any staff.

However, the financial strain of the pandemic was too great. He also stated that the cuts would not impact the enjoyment of museum-goers. 
The decision to layoff remarkable staff at a remarkable Kansas City institution highlights the problems COVID-19 created for museums and other businesses. Art enthusiasts and casual museum-goers can choose to donate to the museum through this link, or in person when they visit.

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