Portland Art Museum To Cut Staff, Illustrating Changes In Arts Funding

By April Baer (OPB)
Portland, Ore. July 18, 2019 11:22 p.m.

UPDATE (July 20, 12:03 p.m. PT) The Portland Art Museum has announced staff cutbacks, trimming 14 positions from the museum's 244 full- and part-time staff.

Jobs were eliminated in departments across the organization in marketing, accounting, events and one assistant curatorial position. Two vacant positions in facilities and events were also eliminated. The security department has been reclassified to be called protection services, which includes the reshuffling of both management and staff roles, with some unspecified jobs cuts. Museum officials said visitor services had also been reorganized.


Museum director and chief curator Brian Ferriso said three factors led to the restructuring, including a new pay equity law, and an effort to retool the customer experience, as other West Coast museums have done recently.

But Ferriso also pointed to a shift in city and philanthropic funding, away from the larger arts organizations like the Portland Art Museum, and toward support for smaller institutions.

For Oregon's arts and cultural institutions, one of the most elusive sources of funding is general operating support: cash that's not tied to a specific exhibition or educational effort and which can be used for any expense, from staff salaries to utilities to fundraising. Historically, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland's nonprofit arts agency, doled out operating support in larger percentages to the region's larger institutions.

"The funding that we received from RACC  has been as high as maybe $500,000," under the leadership of former Mayor Sam Adams, Ferriso said.

But the agency's plan to rebalance city support for arts across a broader spectrum of arts groups will mean smaller payments for the museum, though with opportunities to apply for additional funds down the line.


At the same time, major regional foundations like the Meyer Memorial Trust have followed a national trend, retooling their giving with an eye for fewer specific earmarks for the arts, and a systems-level focus on inequality.

Portland Art Museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, plus many community events.

Portland Art Museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, plus many community events.

John Rosman / OPB

Ferriso said even though the bulk of the funding cuts have yet to take effect, the museum's long-term plan needed to account for them now, as they pursue a capital campaign and efforts to bolster the endowment. Ferriso pointed out the museum gets roughly 14% of its annual budget from endowment income, compared with an industry average he estimates at about 22%.

"We want to make sure the sustainability of the organization is there for the long term," Ferriso said.

RACC executive director Madison Cario said there was bound to be some pain associated with the changes to operating support.

"It’s never a happy thing when people are laid off," Cario said. "This does not feel good."

The agency had no specific discussions with arts organizations about what the effect of the new formula would be. Instead RACC focused on what audiences had not traditionally enjoyed access to Portland's extensive cultural scene, and how the flow of new funding might open theater, film and visual art to low-income Portlanders, people living on the city's east side, people with disabilities, people of color and others.

The question, Cario said, is whether arts organizations are encouraging, inviting and enabling all residents to partake. Cario pointed to the museum's plans for a more accessible point of entry as it moves forward on the construction of its planned Rothko Pavilion.

"If you look at it from an organizational perspective," Cario said, "I think about how we use these opportunities to think about the way we’re doing business."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify specific job cuts and restructuring at the Portland Art Museum.