Questions raised by staff cutbacks at the Exploratorium


A round of recent layoffs at the Exploratorium in San Francisco has taken museum staff by surprise and sparked questions about the institution’s focus going forward, 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 of its LEED-certified space at Piers 15/17, some 80 full-time-equivalent positions were eliminated without prior 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 comprised 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. They’ve created a graphic depicting founder Frank Oppenheimer (above), and are posting to Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #ourcommunitymuseum.

Officially, the cuts were made to solve for a budget shortfall created when attendance at the new facility failed to reach anticipated levels, making actual revenues lower than what consultants had projected. “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.”

Yet Patterson, the museum spokesperson, 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.

Revenue generated by museum visitors is separate from the money raised to relocate the Exploratorium from its previous home at the Palace of Fine Arts. That effort was bankrolled by a capital campaign, which has collected $290 million of its $300 million goal so far, according to Patterson. 

Meanwhile, several museum employees expressed to 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. “Whatever positions are available are being opened to people who were laid off,” Patterson said. But when asked how the museum could possibly afford be hiring at a time when it was cutting staff to balance the budget, she said she didn’t know the answer.

“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.

In some ways, it seems odd that the celebrated 44-year-old institution, which lists its budget online as $58.6 million for 2012-13, would be facing financial problems. 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. Amid speculation that the museum could be changing course, some observers have hinged on the fact that 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.

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, echoed Socolofsky’s assessment that a reorganization effort seemed to be driving staffing cuts in part. But at the same time, he said the museum had to do something to adapt to a new climate in which funding sources are drying up.

“It just seems like the pendulum has swung more toward the business aspect,” he said. An employee for more than 30 years, Barker lamented that the staffing cuts could dampen mentorship opportunities for younger artists and designers.

Barker was dismissive of the idea that the reorganization was somehow linked to Cogan’s role at Bain & Co., saying, “There’s no person who is more dedicated to the museum.”

Amid the unanswered questions, impacted and unaffected staff members alike emphasized in interviews with the Guardian that the Exploratorium staff continued to feel like a kind of family. “I think it’s kind of extraordinary,” said Pamela Winfrey, a senior artist who started working at the museum in 1979 and just had her hours scaled back. “I think there are new directions in the wind as well as a budget shortfall,” Winfrey said. “It’s a complicated picture.”

And across the board, she added, the Exploratorium must contend with the fact that there’s a steadily eroding pool of funding for arts and science. “Funders are really having to think about whether they want to feed starving children,” she said, “or feed the mind.”


Visitor numbers are below budget, which means it runs at a loss, which means they cannot afford those extra staff, and of course there is less work to do.

Not everything is a vast right-wing conspiracy.

I had no idea it was a unionized workplace though, and have no idea why that is the case. Doesn't help with the cost structure.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 05, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

The Museum, unlike The City and The State, cannot merely run up debt and pass on its healthcare/pension obligations to the public and the General Fund...with never a worry about debt.

Too bad, but true

Posted by Anon on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 9:49 am

Unless you like endless debt piling up with no way to ever repay it.

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Posted by virtual assistant service online on Nov. 09, 2013 @ 10:46 am

Does it not give you pause that their miscalculated projections resulted in laying off 18% of their workforce? and in mid-August before the summer season has officially ended? It would make logical business sense to have projections, but to have a buffer that gives time to regroup if the projections are off. Instead, the Exploratorium management chose massive lay offs of people who gave their heart and soul working at the exploratorium for over a decade. I think management should have been the first to go, not the people who make the Exploratorium what it is.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

Private business can't run anything right. Just another case of private inefficiency.

Posted by Greg on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

And if a non-profit in San Francisco makes error judgment, nobody is surprised.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 09, 2013 @ 8:03 am

troll barrier

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it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into petty, mean spirited, irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Sep. 09, 2013 @ 8:37 am

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Posted by on Jul. 08, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

Or maybe the "miscalculation" is simply an excuse to get rid of influential staff and insert your own Bain & Co. corporate culture? Could it be?!

Posted by Guest on Sep. 09, 2013 @ 5:32 am

That means that I can fire you whenever I want for whatever reason I want, or even no reason at all.

That said, projections are just estimates and, insofar as they prove to be incorrect, then that implies either hiring more people or firing some people. That is how employment works, and is perfectly natural and desirable.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 09, 2013 @ 8:04 am

troll barrier

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into petty, mean spirited, irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Sep. 09, 2013 @ 8:34 am

But I do not believe that would apply here.

Posted by anon on Sep. 09, 2013 @ 8:49 am

Only a small portion of the Exploratorium's budget comes from admission. The museum has struggled for the past decade to close its budget each year. Many times it has resorted to various rabbits-in-hats, hail-marys, deus-ex-machinas etc to pull it off.

The staff are loyal, hard-working, and creative. They are not particularly good at finances. I'm glad they are unionized, the protection is needed when the annual budget crisis comes around.

I won't be more specific, because I love the place ecen though I despair for them.

a former employee

Posted by Guest on Oct. 18, 2013 @ 7:53 am

Maybe the Exploratorium would run more efficiently with some layoffs?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 18, 2013 @ 8:37 am

Or do you unions think the money to pay their salaries AND BENEFITS is printed by little green elves?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 05, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

The Exploratorium admission fee was ZERO for MANY years and then switched to "suggested donation" and even after posted set prices, they would still happily waive or negotiate a price if asked.

The Exploratorium historically has been WAY more than a museum dependent upon admission $$. Much of what they do is combine art and science and then find ways to engage the community.
Classes, seminars, lectures, collaborations, publications are also a big part of what the Exploratorium is and does.

Please look at these pages of their website:

They changed the way not only science museums but ALL museums interact with people. And they did that by fostering a unique blend of creativity and imagination from artists, scientists, engineers, biologists, filmmakers, sculptors, physicists, etc. The shift away from that unique chemistry that is the core of the Exploratorium to one of "client services" is one is the most upsetting.

People work there because they love it. The salaries are not great, but an atmosphere like that can't be bought. It has to evolve and grow from the right combination of people. They're now cutting off a lot of those people. I fear for it's future and the future of a uniquely San Franciscan creation and mind-set.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 05, 2013 @ 7:17 pm
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Posted by on Jul. 16, 2014 @ 6:53 pm

The amazing staff of the Exploratorium works incredibly hard at below-market wages because of a shared belief: That they can create exhibits, public programs, books, and a website that help people understand the world around them. It’s a noble goal, and one that many staff members have dedicated their lives to.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 05, 2013 @ 8:28 pm

Maybe we could move a couple of the Lusty Lady booths to the Exploratorium. This way, the kids could get a good working knowledge of the vagina, as well as sidebar lessons in concepts such as "slut shaming" and "female empowerment." Also, it would likely drum up additional traffic in the form of previously uninterested fathers. It's a win-win-win. You just have to think outside the snuff box.

Posted by Chromefields on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 6:56 am

The Exploratiorium story has parallels with San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, which is putting a $15-million fortress in the former Strybing Arboretum.

They too have taken on more staff (subsidized by funds from Phil Ginsburg) while cutting their educational budget!

Posted by guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 8:48 am

The Exploratorium could surely be privatized, and in fact I had assumed it was private before reading this.

While botanical gardens are very expensive to maintain and having non-public, non-union staff maintain it could lead to massive savings, and therefore a lower entry fee.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 9:04 am

Whenever someone tries to float this bogus argument, that privatizing and outsourcing somehow saves governments and communities money and improves services, I like to respond with the following patently obvious allegory highlighting the fact that when you include the huge profit taking that private contractors remove from the process, the outcome is worse, not better.

Imagine that the City has a municipally owned corn patch on which it grows hard corn to supplement the diets of low income San Francisco children.

Let's assume on that little garden plot that the City, with all of its very real bureaucratic and red tape inefficiencies, manages to harvest 8 bushels of corn from that plot.

Can a professional private grower with lots of experience growing hard corn get -more- than 8 bushels harvest off of the same plot for less financial cost? Of course it can. Professional private specialists are likely to be able farm the corn more efficiently. (Especially when you factor in the fact that a private company have more latitude than the City government to jerk around its workers and lower their pay and benefits.)

So let's assume that the private contract farmer is so much more efficient at corn growing that it gets a whopping 12 bushels of corn off of the corn plot. Wow!

But wait. This is a private company we are talking about. And private for profit companies make, guess what, profits. How does our private corn grower make that profit. 1) By, as mentioned above, screwing workers and externalizing its costs to others, and 2) by -selling- some of the corn to the market for income.

So let's say that out of the 12 bushels it grows for the City, the contractor sells 6 of of those bushels to Frito Lay with which Frito Lay will make Doritos.

Now, do the math, and see how many bushels of corn poor children in San Francisco get.

That's right, 6.

But the inefficient city government, because it takes no profit can give them 8 bushels.

That's Government Outsourcing 101.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 9:51 am

Even an unskilled city workers makes probably 60K a year plus insane healthcare and pension benefits, along with pesky unions, restrictive work practices, days off up the wazoo and inflexible work contracts.

A private enterprise can pay half of that, make a profit, and still be far cheaper. Plus it frees up a municipality's capital and enables it to focus more on it's core services like public safety and fixing the streets.

That's why nations around the world have been privatizing utilities and other non-core businesses since the 1970's. the fact that SFBG still advocates nationalizing and socializing such businesses just serves to show how hopelessly out of touch they are with modern thinking.

The UK is currently in the process of privatizing their post office, and has already privatized most of their transit systems. If anything the US is behind the curve on this.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 10:09 am

business than the private sector, he obviously hasn't spent much time in the private sector.

One word. Efficiency.

Posted by anon on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 10:16 am

In it, I bring out the obvious reality that yes, private companies are indeed more -efficient-, but they take so much value in -profit- that municipalities wind up with -less-, not more. And their mistreatment of workers drives down the entire local community economy by lowering wages and personal spending.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 10:31 am

easily more than compensate for that with the employee cost savings, as mentioned.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 11:05 am bad for a community and its economy. As I clearly stated already.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 11:17 am

There is a massive anti privatization wave sweeping nearly the entirety of south and central America right now because all of those countries finally woke up to the fact that privatizing is a huge rip off and was utterly destroying their societies and economies.

San Francisco itself recently, and very wisely, rejected a bid by Bechtel to privatize our water system. (This is the same Bechtel that was thrown out of Cochabamba, Bolivia by a public citizen uprising, after it took private control of the water system and jacked water rates through the roof - and then even tried to get a law passed to make it illegal for Cochabambans to gather rain water so that they would be forced to buy their water from Bechtel. That is the true face of privatization.)

Privatization is a well recognized global failure, and your claims that the trend is otherwise are a complete fairy story.

In the end, regardless of how cheap a private company can make the process, the final result under privatization, is that the kids get 6 bushels of corn instead of 8. And that is the number that matters.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 10:24 am

counter the massive and successful use of privatization in Europe, Canada, Australia etc i.e. places much more like the US.

Of course, since you are a socialist, ideology trumps any rational economic analysis.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 11:06 am

the basket cases that Europe, Canada and the US have become because of privatization.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 11:32 am

the fault of us having private businesses.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

Median household income down 8% since 2000, despite your personal experience and anecdotal information.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 8:13 am

almost any other nation. And picking 2000 is cherry-picking since that was the peak of the boom.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 8:28 am

Median household income is about the same as in 1988 and 1995, so the same as 25 years ago. And it is declining.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 8:46 am

Perhaps because it suits your purpose more?

What I do know is that the stock market is about seven times higher than in 1998 and at twice the level of 1995. For home prices that is probably about ten times and three times respectively. That tells me we are all a lot wealthier.

Wealth isn't just about income. It's also about asset values.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 9:04 am

Nearly all economists use medians.

On median wealth, the US ranks 27th in the world.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 9:19 am

Does anyone really believe that the median wealth per person in the UK is three times what it is in the US?


Posted by Guest on Sep. 07, 2013 @ 9:34 am

percentage of Americans with negative net worth.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 8:33 am

as Americans, on average?

That seems stunningly unbelievable and undermines any credibility of the cited data.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 10:23 am

Because of people like Gates and Buffet, any -average- wealth comparison would artificially make American wealth look higher. But let's get real here. If you average the income of nine people who make $37k per year against Gate's $3.7 billion dollar annual earnings you get an average of $370 MILLION a year. It is clearly utterly laughable to then represent that as the average income of the people in that scenario as if it describes their general well being as a population.

This is the whole point of using the 'median' income (meaning the income in the middle) instead of the average, because it is a much more accurate representation of how the common Joe and Jane in a society are doing.

And in the UK, the common Joe and Jane certainly are doing much better than their common US counterparts.

Free universal health care alone accomplishes that by enabling those UK commoners to keep most of the money they would have wasted paying for overpriced private health care.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 10:53 am

success or wealth achieved by those richer than me.

The wealthy generally do great good with their money e.g. the Gates Foundation.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 11:40 am

Far more of Bill Gates' currently hoarded and sequestered wealth, would have far more positive economic impact, if it were more evenly paid to common consumers who will spend it on real goods; including Microsoft software. This patently obvious reality is why one of the smartest capitalists of all time, Henry Ford, paid his workers higher wages than his competitors.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

it would be confiscated and redistributed?

In fact, his billions ended up in the Gates Foundation, doing far more good than enabling the hoi polloi to buy more trinkets.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

Instead of paying themselves billions (because of caps not confiscation) they would pay their own workers more.

And those workers would spend so much more of that money into the economy that it would generate far more taxes and public benefits than Gates and his foundation.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 4:59 pm
Posted by films Porno gros Seins on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 11:56 pm

The ultimate source for the data is a report by the Swiss bank Credit Suisse. About as pro-capitalist a source as you could want.

I'm not sure it should be at all surprising that the median Briton has higher wealth per adult than the median American. As a previous commenter mentioned, socialized medicine in Britain means no one pays out of pocket. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (, the difference in spending per capita in 2011 was $4396 ($8174 vs. $3280). Over a lifetime, that really adds up. According to the Credit Suisse report I cited, mean American debt per adult (unfortunately, there is no data given on median debt) is over $11,000 higher than mean U.K. debt per adult. French debt per adult is more than $20,000 less than in the U.S. This obviously increases net wealth for the U.K. and France relative to the U.S.

Another part of the picture is wealth inequality, which is worse than income inequality in every country surveyed in the Credit Suisse report. While the U.S. is 27th is median wealth per adult, it is 7th in mean wealth per adult. That is a direct reflection of the higher inequality in the U.S. compared to other rich nations.

Posted by Kenneth Thomas on Sep. 08, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

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