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February 16, 2024

As it prepares for $100M expansion, Portland Museum of Art lays off 13

File photo / Peter Van Allen Thirteen jobs have been cut at the Portland Museum of Art, whose Payson Building is shown here last fall. The building to the left, with the white columns, is 142 Free St., which the museum plans to demolish in order to expand.

Saying it faces continued financial challenges from the pandemic, the Portland Museum of Art on Thursday cut 13 employees from its workforce of over 100.

The eliminated jobs included hourly as well as salaried ones, according to a museum statement. The layoffs did not affect front-line support staff, including recently unionized gallery ambassadors and security workers.

The museum’s director, Mark Bessire, is also taking a voluntary 20% reduction in his annual salary of more than $500,000.

"Like many museums, municipal, and cultural organizations, we continue to be adversely impacted by the instability of the COVID-19 pandemic," the PMA's statement read.

The museum acknowledged that it had received Paycheck Protection Program loans and other pandemic aid, "but the multi-year positive impact of this support will soon expire. As expenses continue to remain high and unpredictable, the real and persisting negative effects of this historic moment have necessitated changes in the PMA’s operations."

Nearly 70% of the museum's operating budget goes toward wages and benefits, according to the statement.

The museum, whose campus includes the distinctive Charles Shipman Payson Building at 7 Congress Square, also laid some blame for the cuts on changes in downtown Portland.

"The PMA, like other neighborhood businesses, also acknowledges that we are not immune to economic and urban stress, including the deterioration of the Congress Square neighborhood and inadequacies of our dated facilities," the museum said.

"Since 2020, the museum has seen a 35% decrease in attendance because fewer visitors and workers are coming back to Congress Square and our spaces for programmatic growth are limited."

The job cuts come as the PMA works to get underway on a sweeping, $100 million expansion plan.

The "PMA Blueprint," as the project is called, would include razing a building next door to make room for a new, 60,000-square-foot wing. The current structure, at 142 Free St., dates to 1830 and most recently housed the Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine. The PMA bought the building in 2019.

Before it can break ground, however, the PMA needs the city of Portland to reclassify 142 Free St. as a "non-contributing" structure in the Congress Street Historic District. The request has met opposition from the Portland Historic Preservation Board as well as an advocacy group, Greater Portland Landmarks.

In the business community and elsewhere, there have been sharply divided opinions about the plan to demolish 142 Free St., as a Mainebiz poll last month illustrated.

After the preservation board made a recommendation against reclassifying the building, the request went to the Portland Planning Board, which heard public testimony on the matter for several hours Tuesday. That board ultimately tabled further discussion and a potential vote on the request until Feb. 27.

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