Five employees at the National Museum of African Art were dismissed recently by the director, who said she made the cuts because of budget difficulties and the need to reorganize the museum.
Director Sharon Patton told the employees June 23 they were being fired. They included a conservator who worked at the museum for 15 years and a senior curator.
The decision came as a surprise to the staff. Patton said she knew the announcement was unexpected but she had followed Smithsonian personnel guidelines, adding, "I can sympathize that they didn't expect it. But when you mention reorganization, it creates an anxiety that is quite high. I wanted to find a balance."
The firings represent a 13.5 percent reduction in the museum's permanent staff, which will now have 32 full-time employees.
"I told them that this action was not something I took lightly, but I thought it was necessary in view of the current budget situation and the priorities of the museum," said Patton, a scholar and museum curator who became director in March 2003. She was on the museum's advisory board for three years before becoming director. She said the decision was difficult but she needed resources "to meet your basic needs and expand in some areas."
Questions about her leadership style have been raised by staff members.
A participant in the staff meeting, who did not want to be identified because of job concerns, said, "The message itself was not harsh," especially since the tight budget was common knowledge, "but the explanation for the firings was unsatisfactory." After her private meetings with the five employees, Patton told the staff that belt-tightening was taking place all over the Smithsonian. Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, says every museum and office is reviewing its budget.
The African Art Museum has always had an unusual status in the city. Started by a private collector in a Capitol Hill townhouse, the museum became part of the Smithsonian 25 years ago. That gave it immediate international status. The art museums at the Smithsonian have a loyal following, but that does not always translate into a huge numbers of visitors. According to the Smithsonian, African Art had 63,000 visitors this year through the end of May, more than the Renwick Gallery or the Sackler Gallery. In 2004, African Art had 165,000 visitors, ahead of the Renwick but behind the Sackler.
Its location has been a challenge. The museum has a modest entrance behind the Smithsonian Castle, but the bulk of it is underground, as is the Sackler. African Art has a $4 million budget, which has not been increased for several years.
Patton has moved slowly to put her stamp on the museum, saying her priorities are education programs, innovative exhibitions, increased visitation and community outreach. "There are programs I couldn't do because I didn't have the money," she said. Last summer, she stopped participating in the Smithsonian's Art Night program, and she has restricted staff travel, she said.
Fundraising also has been difficult, Patton said, mainly because of her working on day-to-day operations. So far, this year she has raised $250,000, but it is earmarked for specific programs.
Dissatisfaction with her leadership has led to a number of employee complaints to the Smithsonian ombudsman. There were reportedly 13 to 15 complaints, some from those whose jobs were abolished. "There's enough frustration that people have registered complaints," said one museum employee who was reluctant to talk because of concern about his job.
Those who raised questions about the museum's direction and leadership said they wanted more outreach to the constituencies in the region, from African art collectors to immigrants and diplomatic groups. Others want forums on current events in Africa. Patton says she doesn't disagree and is optimistic about a strategic planning process that will satisfy everyone.
Other employees question the amount of art borrowed from former or current board members for a show called "Treasures," now open. A retrospective of major works, the show includes about 50 loans and about 20 pieces from the permanent collection. "I wanted to strengthen the relationship with the collectors," said Patton. "As a national museum we should present the best of our collection and the best of America's collections." Borrowing from policymakers and supporters is a common practice in art museums. But employees question the imbalance because the museum has thousands of works of its own.
Patton says she hopes to use any savings from the firings to add an associate director for art and programs, perhaps with some expertise in contemporary African art, as well as a development director.
Fired were senior curator David Binkley, conservator Dana Moffett, a design staffer, a research specialist and an education scheduler.