Equitable Institutional Sustainability in Times of Crisis

What follows is a statement urging museum leaders to keep equity at the forefront of their decisions right now, and outlining rationale and potential strategies behind this call. The statement was written by Elisabeth Callihan and edited by many others involved in the MASS Action (Museum as Site for Social Action) Collective and is endorsed by the Collective. The Incluseum is part of the MASS Action Collective and supports this statement. We are grateful to all those who were involved in its formulation.

Why Equity

As we have seen over the past few weeks, this crisis is exposing already-deep inequities that exist in American society―impacting marginalized communities more immediately and severely than the rest of the population,[i][ii] posing a higher risk for persons with disabilities and chronic illness, exacerbating vulnerabilities in Native American communities,[iii] and disproportionately killing those in African American and Latinx communities.[iv] This global health crisis will spark a national economic crisis, which will impact everyone and take time to recover from. And yet, it will impact some more deeply; some populations will recover more quickly, while others still will directly profit from it.[v] Despite the losses in stock portfolios due to the crisis, the 1% have never been more privileged than they are right now.[vi]

Futurists and scholars posit that the exposure and resultant harm of these inequities will have a profound impact on our country moving forward.[vii]

  • Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard, predicts this inequality gap will only widen after coronavirus. She points out that, “…most of the wealthiest 20% of Americans will continue to earn steady incomes [throughout this crisis] while having necessities delivered to their front doors. The other 80% of Americans lack that financial cushion. Many will struggle with job losses and family burdens. They are more likely to be single parents or single-income households.” And so the gap widens.

  • Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, emphasizes these widening inequities―as we “see the extent to which rich, well-connected and well-resourced communities will have been taken care of, while contingent, poor and stigmatized communities will have been thoroughly destroyed”―will spark a political uprising.

  • Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, suggests that this moment in our nation’s history offers an “unprecedented opportunity to not just hit the pause button and temporarily ease the pain, but to permanently change the rules so that untold millions of people aren’t so vulnerable to begin with.”

We are at a critical crossroads as an institution, as a nation, as global citizens, to rebuild. The notion that we will not be able to―nor should we―go back to the way things were is becoming more clear. What we will learn from this crisis, what we will take from it, and how will it change us? When we look ahead one generation, to the year 2050, will this nation have addressed the inequities surfaced during this crisis, or will we continue to accept them as inevitabilities? Will cultural organizations have stepped up to the changing demographics in a new environment that is increasingly more diverse, or will we continue to operate at the exclusion of the majority of our communities?

This unprecedented time creates an impulse to look forward to creative solutions, but many of those solutions will be predicated on how we act in the present. We must ask ourselves, when we imagine 2050, are we laying the groundwork for a better future today? Our actions in this time must be rooted in our values, chief among them equity, which creates a path towards not only a more just future, for all members of our society, but a healthier, more sustainable institution. Time and again, whether in healthcare or education or community-building, research and lived experience has shown that centering the people who are most vulnerable and at-risk ensures better outcomes for everybody. Museums can choose to weather this crisis in relative isolation, or step out as leaders in our field, shifting the paradigm to model a values-driven response, taking a human-centered, empathetic approach to the challenges ahead, and centering those most affected.

So how do we prioritize equity in our decisions and actions now and moving forward? We do it through transparency and reciprocity with staff and civic responsibility to our communities.

Transparency in Communication & Decision-Making

It is essential in this moment of crisis to commit to transparency in communication and decision-making. Transparency calms fears and builds trust among staff. But it is not enough to say you are being transparent, you have to be transparent. For example, sharing that you are “considering all the options” on the table is not transparency. As a leader, it should be a given that you are considering options. Transparency is sharing with employees what those options are so that they can better plan for the future. Transparency involves having empathy for staff and providing timely information instead of waiting until you know all of the answers. Leaders should be clear about the challenges and provide, to the best of their ability, an assessment of the immediate impact of the current situation on the institution, as well as potential long-term effects. This requires communication even when they don’t have all of the information, to reveal as much as they can about sensitive information.[viii] Be forthright. Remember, your employees are adults. Treat them with trust and they will reciprocate.

Practicing transparency will require new methods of horizontal communication, instead of top-down information sharing and decision-making. Create a new forum or model for this, such as creating weekly “town hall”-style discussions with staff in order to allow communication to move in both directions rather than traditional top-down report outs. This provides a space for trust-building and collective sense-making.

Employees, Empathy, and the Bottom Line

For many cultural institutions, staff salaries and benefits comprise half, or more, of their total budget.[ix] When organizations are faced with a budget shortfall, it is often most expedient to look at cutting the human resources. Research shows, however, this is often not the best short-term or long-term solution. Instead of approaching this crisis from a solely financial standpoint, how might we model “institutional empathy” by prioritizing care for staff?[x] A trio of CEOs, who recently penned the article “The Coronavirus Crisis Doesn’t Have to Lead to Layoffs” in the Harvard Business Review wrote on this topic: “Going through a downturn and making tough decisions to keep your company afloat is hard. However, if you lead with compassion you will touch the lives of your employees in an extraordinary way and come out of this potential slowdown stronger than ever before, enhancing the shared values of your staff.”[xi]

Some strategies for putting equity and empathy into practice include:

Commit to no layoffs

As a first response to the financial hardship precipitated by museum closures, many institutions started with layoffs or long-term furloughs of their casual and part-time employees. Regrettably, these tend to have less structural power, and are often occupied by marginalized identities who may already be most impacted by this crisis. Paradoxically, these positions are often the closest to the visitor (visitor services, security, educators); so while these employees cannot perform their regular duties, their skillsets and expertise of visitor engagement could be retasked to focus on digital engagement and other meaningful efforts during the closure.

As the closure extends and reopening dates are unknown, many institutions are also forced to contemplate layoffs of full-time staff to meet budget shortfalls. A layoff takes a harmful financial toll on the individual employee (78% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck)―not to mention the loss of health benefits at a time they are more crucial than ever. In addition to the financial toll, author Louis Uchitelle in his book The Disposable American, points to a serious psychological toll, as well, writing that layoffs often trigger deep feelings of failure and blows to self-esteem from which people never fully recovered.[xii]

Leaders also underestimate how much disruption layoffs cause to the whole institution in the short and long-term, consuming everyone in the organization for years to come. Employees who remain are extremely distracted, because they’ve lost colleagues and are worried about their own jobs.[xiii] A 2002 study by Stockholm University and University of Canterbury found that after a layoff, survivors experienced a 41% decline in job satisfaction, a 36% decline in organizational commitment, and a 20% decline in job performance.[xiv]

It is also important to consider the social and cultural capital at stake. Particularly in laying off part-time or emerging professional positions, roles often filled by BIPOC colleagues, whose presence–and the social, emotional, and cultural resources they bring–are used and relied upon by the museum to create relevant connections to our audiences. The value and power of these forms of non-monetary capital (which includes their interpersonal relations, lived experiences, and networks) cannot be underestimated as the museum has to think about what to cut. These forms of “capital” take years to develop and fracturing these relations now will have long-term repercussions that may not be repairable for years to come.

These complex factors must be understood and considered before making staffing decisions. The budget issues most museums are facing are serious. It may be unrealistic or unsustainable to think that all museums can commit absolutely, and indefinitely, to avoiding layoffs. However, every institution can commit to a process of exhausting all available equity-centered options before moving forward with layoffs. And if layoffs do eventually become inevitable, commit to proceeding with full transparency around decision-making and empathy and compassion for those impacted.

Share the Pain

In an often cited example, Honeywell CEO David Cote avoided laying off a segment of employees and causing deep financial hardship on the select few, he decided to “share the pain” or divide the responsibility of a lighter financial hardship across the entire workforce. “Generally speaking,” he wrote, “not everything is about money. People aren’t mercenary, and they want to be part of something successful that is bigger than themselves.”[xv] Echoing this idea, the trio of CEOs in HRB write, “One common misconception is that most people primarily look out for themselves in turbulent times. On the contrary, our experience is that during a crisis, individuals overwhelmingly prefer to make sacrifices if it means that their company can help more of their colleagues keep their jobs.”[xvi] Oakland Museum of California just provided an example of what this looks like in practice, announcing hours reductions for 106 full-time staff in order to retain 44 part-time staff and avoid layoffs.

Pay Reductions: Equity over Parity

As a first step to avoid layoffs, some institutions may consider temporary pay reductions for all staff. We are, after all, in this together. However, despite our solidarity, we cannot ignore the nuance of our individual identities and economic circumstances. Therefore, when taking an empathy-centered approach, equity should take primacy over parity. The distribution of income wealth should be taken into consideration: The average museum CEO makes six times what the average museum administrative worker makes, and nine times what a front-of-house worker earns.[xvii] This aligns with national trends, which have seen CEO incomes increase by 200% in the past 20 years, while low to middle class incomes have increased only 20 – 50% respectively.[xviii] To accept accountability in supporting the bottom line, some CEOs and executive leaders are electing to take significant pay reductions to ensure the well-being of the entire staff body.[xix]

Following an equitable model, if pay reductions are necessary for all staff, cuts should be tiered or graduated based on income. For example:


Hour Reductions: Shared Work/Short-Term Compensation

Hour reductions are another approach to avoid layoffs and long-term furloughs. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by the federal government on March 27 in response to the economic impact of COVID-related forced closures, includes federal funding for short-term compensation (STC) or shared-work programs. 27 states have these programs in place.[xx] Here’s how it works: Employers experiencing a closure agree to divide “available hours of work” among a group of employees instead of laying off workers entirely. So, for example, a participating employer might reduce everyone’s hours by 20% instead of laying off 20% of their full-time workforce. Employees on these reduced hours receive unemployment benefits in proportion to the reduction in their hours and retain access to their health insurance.[xxi]

Choice, Flexibility, and Time

Equity is about the existence of choice. In traditional systems, those with power have the ability to make choices that determine the outcomes for themselves and others, while those without structural power do not. In an equitable system, everyone should have the right to self-determination, making choices that best support their individual circumstances. Therefore, once the institution’s budget shortfall has been determined, and cost-saving measures must be enacted, employees should be given the maximum available choices in order to decide what is best for them/their families.

For example, institutions might give employees the choice of:

  • Taking a pay reduction of 5% for one year

  • Or taking a two-week furlough, which the employee could choose to take all at once or spread out over a longer window (for example, one day a week, spread out over 2 months), etc.

This goes back to the importance of transparency. Share the reality of the budget shortfall and allow employees to help in creating the solution. And give as much notice as possible so that employees can plan ahead.

This is particularly important if layoffs have become an inevitability. It is not only best practice to give a window of advance notice; in ordinary circumstances it is mandated under US labor law. The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act mandates that employers of 100 staff or more give employees a 60-day advance notice of closings and mass layoffs. There is an exception to this advance requirement for “a business circumstance caused by some sudden, dramatic, and unexpected action(s) or condition(s) beyond the employer’s control”, which COVID-19 undoubtedly falls under. However, the law still states that, “notice must be provided as soon as practicable.”[xxii] Share information early and often, communicating openly with staff throughout the decision-making process rather than waiting until you have all of the answers―this is empathy in practice.

Equitable Budget Cuts: Preserving Civic Engagement & Community Partnerships

While staffing costs are being reduced, standard practice at most museums is to make across-the-board budget cuts to all non-essential programming costs. In a time of scarcity, it is easy to abandon, or deprioritize community work. It feels sensible. We simply don’t have the money. It is crucial, though, that the equity lens be applied in the decision-making on this front, allowing some strategic funds to stay active for community support. The Empathetic Museum issued this clarion call, “Now more than ever, believe that your institution is part of the civic infrastructure of your municipality. Be in touch with other civic and community leaders so that you can be a part of planning and problem solving for your community.”[xxiii]

What is happening within organizations affects everyone in the communities around them. Our community members, particularly those in marginalized identities and those with disabilities are under serious strain right now: How can we not step up at the time they need us the most? How strong is our commitment to our community if we abandon it when it counts? This is not a time to preserve ourselves at the expense of our communities. Keeping relationships active with community is crucial. It sends a message that the museum understands that we do not operate in isolation, that we are part of a larger community ecosystem. It also reminds people that museums can be important civic leaders, all the time, but especially during this time.

These efforts can be small but meaningful. Being able to offer something, anything, will go a long way right now. There are many examples of organizations stepping up in various ways, despite budget concerns. All My Relations, the Native American nonprofit art gallery in Minneapolis, is offering artists stipends to create PPE masks for frontline workers. This provides a small monetary resource to artists who are struggling with lost wages, and helps support workers in a community where the virus disproportionately impacts its people. The Philbrook’s “Phil the Gaps” initiative is an innovative example, which gives back 10% of membership to Tulsa COVID-19 Response orgs. Indefinite Arts Centre, a disability arts organization, is sending art-making kits out to their member artists so that they can keep creating art from home.

Yes, you need some money to do these things. Prioritize your commitment to community above other programmatic efforts in order to create capacity. Share with donors or administrators of endowments your intention to commit to equity and your community, and ask them to consider making a portion of endowments unrestricted for FY20/21 to help support these costs.

In the meantime, without any funds, you can still signal to your community you stand with them. You can address the racism and xenophobia that run counter to the values of all types of museums (science, history, art, children’s, etc.). We must stand in solidarity with our Asian and Asian American communities and publicly reject the racism and xenophobia that Asians have faced as a result of COVID-19.

The Impact on Sustainability

Weathering this crisis won’t be easy. But these efforts will have an impact. Making a commitment to equity is not at odds with managing the short-term financial bottom line, and in fact, will yield better outcomes in the long-run. In addition to the positive outcomes for staff sustainability and community trust outlined above, trends are also pointing to the positive impact a commitment to equity and the public good will make on donors and funders. Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, suggests that, after years of witnessing disinvestment in public infrastructure, when the crisis abates, the public will “reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods and public services.”[xxiv]

Because of the necessity of pulling together through this crisis, we will become a more communal society as we’ve come to understand our interconnectedness and have shared a sense of solidarity with one another. Funders, donors, and community members will be asking institutions: How did they respond to COVID-19? How did they serve the community during this crisis? Sites such as DidTheyHelp.com are already monitoring how companies are responding to the pandemic. When the crisis passes, a “reputational reckoning” will occur as audiences decide where to direct funds based on an organization’s values. Investing in our staff and showing up for our communities despite our financial woes―rather, precisely because of our financial woes―will pay off.

Archon Fung, professor of citizenship and self-government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, envisions that the coronavirus crisis might sow the seeds of a new civic federalism, in which states and localities become centers of justice, solidarity and far-sighted democratic problem-solving.[xxv] Museums, as civic institutions, are well-positioned to be leaders in this new future if we choose equity today.

Will we stand in solidarity with one another?


[i]Vox, Every aspect of the coronavirus pandemic exposes America’s devastating inequalities, April 10, 2020.
[ii] Brookings Institution, The effects of the coronavirus outbreak on marginalized communities, April 2, 2020.
[iii] ABC News, Indian Country faces higher risks, lack of resources in COVID-19 fight, April 3, 2020.
[iv] New York Times, Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C., April 8, 2020.
[v] The New Yorker, The Price of the Coronavirus Pandemic, April 13, 2020.
[vi] New York Times, America Will Struggle After Coronavirus, April 10, 2020.
[vii] Politico, Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How., March 19, 2020.
[viii] Harvard Business Review, Communicating Through the Coronavirus Crisis, March 13, 2020.
[ix] Association of Art Museum Directors, 2019 Salary Survey.
[x] The Empathetic Museum, How to be an Empathetic Museum in this Troubled Time, March 20, 2020.
[xi] Harvard Business Review, The Coronavirus Crisis Doesn’t Have to Lead to Layoffs, March 20, 2020.
[xii] Quartz at Work, The short but destructive history of mass layoffs, July 12, 2019.
[xiii] Harvard Business Review, Honeywell’s CEO on How He Avoided Layoffs, June 2013.
[xiv] Dan Reid. Operations Management: An Integrated Approach, 7th edition. S.l.: WILEY, 2019, p. 231.
[xv] Harvard Business Review, Honeywell’s CEO on How He Avoided Layoffs, June 2013.
[xvi] Harvard Business Review, The Coronavirus Crisis Doesn’t Have to Lead to Layoffs, March 20, 2020.
[xvii] Hyperallergic, Study Finds Museum Salaries Are Rising Across the Board, Despite Huge Disparities, July 4, 2017.
[xviii] New York Times, America Will Struggle After Coronavirus, April 10, 2020.
[xix] Forbes, CEOs Are Cutting Their Own Salaries In Response To The Coronavirus, March 30, 2020.
[xx] Homebase, What to Know about Short-Time Compensation Programs, accessed April 14, 2020.
[xxi] Politico, The Smart Way to Save Jobs in the Time of Coronavirus, March 18 2020.
[xxii] US Department of Labor, Worker’s Guide to Advance Notice of Closings and Layoffs, accessed April 16, 2020.
[xxiii] The Empathetic Museum, How to be an Empathetic Museum in this Troubled Time, March 20, 2020.
[xxiv] Politico, Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How., March 19, 2020.
[xxv] Ibid.


  1. […] The Incluseum, Equitable Institutional Sustainability In Times Of Crisis […]

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  3. The only good thing about Life in the Time of Covid-19 is that we have time to look at the cracks in the system and really look at sustainable business modelling. It should just be about increasing profits by cutting staff. My work experience outside museums lead me to believe in the power of the people – people have always been our greatest resource. Don’t waste that resource with huge staff turnover and casualisation of the workforce – you are haemorrhaging knowledge and experience that adds value to your business. I think CEOs are paid way too much in proportion to what they bring to the business. It’s actually obscene.

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