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Key pair laid off at MAC

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture escaped budget death last month and now crowds are showing up in good numbers for “Leonardo da Vinci: Man-Inventor-Genius.”

Yet the museum had to lay off two more employees last week: senior curator of art Ben Mitchell and collections assistant Tisa Matheson.

That’s because the museum still must absorb another 4.5 percent budget cut – after cutting staff 40 percent over the last two years.

“The problem is, there’s nobody left,” said executive director Ron Rector.

And even Rector won’t be there much longer. He is scheduled to retire June 30, although he’ll probably have to stay on at least part time until a replacement can be hired.

The selection process for a new executive director was shut down earlier this year when it appeared the MAC would be forced to close. But the process has been restarted and the candidates have been narrowed to two.

Rector said he hoped there would be a decision soon. “This hasn’t been a fun two years,” he said.

The latest layoff decision was especially painful. Both Mitchell and Matheson were crucial to the museum, but the budget choices are getting more and more drastic.

Mitchell mounted many ambitious and well-received exhibits over the last few years, including major retrospectives on local icons Harold Balazs, Ruben Trejo and Timothy C. Ely. He also produced books on Trejo, Balazs and Montana artist John Buck, and has done a considerable amount of art scholarship.

“Ben is a wonderful talent,” said Rector. “Financially, we’re not in a position to have that kind of talent.”

Rector said he had to choose between the positions of art curator and the history curator. He said it came down to two factors: Mitchell had less seniority and there was more “backup” available in the art department.

The museum will now have to “go without” an art curator, Rector said. This raises questions about how much “art” will remain in a museum with “arts and culture” in the title.

Mitchell, in a written statement on Tuesday, said: “The museum is larger than any individual. But if a museum (or school or library or symphony) abandons core missions and responsibilities – the study of our serious, engaged, professional artists – even short-term, what does that say about its belief in teaching and learning about the role of art, aesthetics, history and philosophy as part of a vital community?”

Rector said the museum will still mount art exhibits, but may have to bring in guest curators (including possibly Mitchell) for big shows.

Mitchell, 59, said it’s still too early to say what his plans are. He was heading for LaConner, Wash., on Tuesday to help install a Harold Balazs exhibit at the Museum of Northwest Art – based on the exhibit he curated at the MAC. He has been the MAC’s art curator since 2006.

Rector said his only option, other than the two layoffs, would have been to impose furloughs on all of the museum’s employees – on top of the furloughs they are already taking as part of a larger state cut. But that would have amounted to four furlough days every month.

“I guess I’ll blame it on the governor and the Legislature,” said Rector.

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