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As furloughs grow, Kennedy Center defends Use of $25 million in aid
A section of the Reach, designed by Steven Holl Architects, the Kennedy Center’s first expansion in its nearly half-century history. Justin T. Gellerson/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Facing criticism for furloughing workers after it was granted $25 million in federal coronavirus relief funding, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday defended its need for the bailout and outlined its plans for the money.

The Kennedy Center in Washington, home of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera, painted a dire picture of the pandemic’s economic effect, saying in a statement that even with the extra funding, the center would run out of cash as soon as July.

The center announced Tuesday that it would need to furlough around 250 people, roughly 60% of its full-time administrative staff, in addition to more than 700 hourly and part-time employees.

“It is imperative that we scale back the entire institution’s personnel costs during this time of closure and dearth of ticket income,” said a statement from the center, which canceled performances through at least May 10 but predicted that projected reopening date might be premature.

The defense came as some Republican legislators introduced a bill to revoke the $25 million designated for the Kennedy Center in the $2 trillion stimulus package that President Donald Trump signed into law Friday.

Some Republicans have made funding for the Kennedy Center a symbol of what they deemed wasteful spending on the part of Democrats. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, tweeted that the Kennedy Center was a “nice place” but did not deserve to get funding through legislation focused primarily on helping businesses and families in need.

Democrats had defended the funding, saying the Kennedy Center provides employment for nearly 3,000 people who would be risking losses as the performing arts center canceled shows and lost revenue.

Even Trump, in a break with some members of his party, voiced support for the funding, saying at a news conference that he’d “love to see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ” at the Kennedy Center but that “you couldn’t go there if you wanted to.”

But pressure on the center has grown as it has announced the furloughs despite the infusion of federal aid. The Kennedy Center notified leaders of the National Symphony Orchestra that 96 musicians were being furloughed and would receive their final paychecks this week, prompting a pushback Tuesday from their union, the D.C. Federation of Musicians.

Lawyers representing the union sent a letter to a Kennedy Center lawyer arguing that the decision to stop paying musicians after this week was a violation of their collective bargaining agreement and that the center should have provided six weeks’ notice to the musicians.

According to the letter, the Kennedy Center had argued it could suspend the agreement on one week’s notice because of “exigent circumstances.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., introduced a bill that would rescind the $25 million in funding, saying in a statement, “if an organization is receiving assistance from the federal government, we expect them to take care of their workers.”

In the numbers it released Tuesday, the Kennedy Center said that the majority of the funding it received — $22 million out of the $25 million — would be designated for employee compensation, benefits and artist contracts and fees. The rest of the money would go toward a deep cleaning of the facility, IT help for its new teleworking system, rent and other expenses. A spokeswoman for the center said it will pay for health care benefits for employees who are furloughed.

Arts institutions across the country are experiencing financial struggles like those of the Kennedy Center, which said it relies on ticket sales and donations for most of its operating budget.

The “skeleton staff” of roughly 150 people the center said would keep their positions include employees in finance, marketing, development and the box office. In addition to the musicians, furloughed staff members include ushers as well as workers in concessions, parking and retail.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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