May 27 was the last day at work for four staff members of the downtown Farnsworth Art Museum. The positions of curator of historic sites, manager of Julia’s Gallery, chief of security and assistant manager of the Museum Store, representing 6 percent of the nonprofit museum’s staff, were eliminated in a cost-cutting restructuring.

“It really came right out of the blue,” said Janice Kasper of Swanville, who had been curator of historic sites.

Kasper said she and the other three affected employees were brought into a conference room one at a time by the chief financial officer to meet with a human resources person brought in from outside the organization.

“They told us finances were bad and because of budgetary concerns, they were cutting four staff positions. It had nothing to do with our job performances and we would get positive recommendations,” said Kasper.

Also implemented that day were a week’s furlough for all full-time salaried staff members and some expense trimming measures. In a statement to the press, the museum likened its situation to that of the vast majority of American museums in that despite a decade of growth and expansion, it is not immune to the past years’ stark financial circumstances. The museum’s fiscal year aligns with that of the calendar, so the cuts were not made in an attempt to meet a budget deadline but rather as movement toward long-term viability.

“There were several triggers. Our endowment has dropped by 30 percent [during 2008 and 2009] and the economy continues to be slow,” said Christopher J. Brownawell, who came in as director on Feb. 1, 2010.

Brownawell said the cuts resulted from an ongoing effort by the museum’s board and staff to deal with the economic crisis, which also may mean less foundation, government and corporate support.

“It’s been going on quite some time, well before my arrival,” he said. “These were not quick decisions.”

The programs associated with the eliminated positions will continue, he added, relying on existing staff in the various departments that contained them. The museum’s historic sites — the Homestead on Elm Street and the Olson House in Cushing — are administered by the curatorial department and Julia’s is administered by the education department, for example.

“The museum’s programming is directly related to its mission of exhibition and education. It is not at all being curtailed,” Brownawell said, adding that some future initiatives are being tabled for the time being.

The museum’s membership was informed in a letter sent out May 28 by board of trustees President Richard Aroneau that the layoffs were taking place. Brownawell would not comment on the packages put together for the people whose positions were cut.

Kasper said she and the other staff members let go were concerned because state government was closed the following day and for Memorial Day, not leaving them much time to get the information they needed in regards to the general release waiver they were asked to sign.

“We were paid through the pay period, which ended June 7, and were offered two-weeks severance if we signed. I decided against signing,” Kasper said, adding the employees’ health insurance will run through June, after which they are eligible for COBRA.

Staff furloughs must be taken by the end of the year, and Brownawell said the museum’s human resources department is working with employees “to try to make it as palatable as possible.” Based on individual circumstances, employees may take a day at a time rather than a full week without pay.

“This kind of thing is very painful,” said Brownawell. “We felt we needed to be proactive and that’s the position we took.”

Kasper said what hurts most for her is that she did not that day, and has not since, heard anything from her supervisor or the museum’s director.

“I was there 18 years, I did a lot; I didn’t make a lot of money. Can’t an institution be professional and still have compassion?” she asked.

In her work on behalf of the Farnsworth Homestead and Olson House, Kasper relied on a large group of volunteers and those unpaid co-workers have been extremely attentive and supportive.

“It’s kind of like attending my own wake; I keep getting cards,” she said.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to dernest@villagesoup.com.

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