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Exploratorium layoffs raise questions

A round of recent layoffs at the Exploratorium in San Francisco has taken the museum staff by surprise and sparked questions about the institution's focus, an unexpected turn of events on the heels of the institution's splashy reopening at its refurbished 330,000 square foot facility along The Embarcadero.

In mid-August, just a few months after the Exploratorium opened the doors at Piers 15/17, some 80 full-time-equivalent positions were eliminated without warning. The cuts included 35 layoffs, 35 positions that went unfilled, and eight reductions from full time to part time, according to spokesperson Leslie Patterson, a 14-year Exploratorium employee who was among those affected. The total staff is composed of 290 full-time-equivalent positions, according to its website.

Roughly three quarters of the impacted staff members are represented by SEIU Local 1021, and union members are now gearing up to launch a social media campaign in response to the sudden staffing cuts, featuring the community-minded vision of founder Frank Oppenheimer, with the hashtag #ourcommunitymuseum.

Officially, the cuts were made to solve a budget shortfall created when attendance at the new facility failed to reach anticipated levels. "They had very, very aggressive projections for attendance," noted Eric Socolofsky, an exhibit developer who has been representing unionized museum staff at the negotiating table.

"We worked so hard to get in these doors and open this place," Socolofsky said of the new waterfront spot. "People have given so much," but in the weeks since layoff notices were issued without warning, "there's a lot of disillusionment."

Patterson emphasized that "our crowds have grown" since the new facility opened, despite the uncertain financial picture. June attendance was triple that of June in the previous year, she said, but the overall attendance figures still failed to hit necessary targets. "We needed to reduce the workforce to offset a budget gap," she said.

Yet several museum employees told the Guardian that there is more to the sudden staff reduction than just solving a simple budget gap. There appears to be a reorganization effort afoot to promote business development, Socolofsky said, and that has some staff members concerned about a shift in priorities that could detract from efforts geared particularly for Bay Area patrons.

Socolofsky said more energy had been going toward "client services," or contracting with outside institutions to build exhibits, and rent or sell portable exhibits developed at the Exploratorium. And even as the layoff notices have been issued, the Exploratorium is hiring for a dozen or so new positions.

"One of our concerns is that it's moving toward a profit model," Socolofsky said, adding that it was his understanding that some positions had been eliminated because they did not fit into the new organizational structure.

Its board of directors includes representatives from prominent businesses including Google, Twitter, eBay, Bechtel, Disney, PG&E, and a host of prominent venture capital firms with investments in the tech sector. Exploratorium Board Chairman George Cogan is a director at Bain & Company, Inc., a firm that specializes in restructuring, which gained notoriety during the 2012 presidential election due to GOP candidate Mitt Romney's history of involvement there.

"It just seems like the pendulum has swung more toward the business aspect," said David Barker, a graphic designer with the Exploratorium's Institutional Media Group who was forced into an early retirement as a consequence of the staffing cuts.

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