Tenement Museum Struggling to See a ‘Long-term Future’


The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, which honors our nation’s immigrant past in groundbreaking ways, is facing a financial crisis in light of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Since closing their doors to the public on March 14, the museum has had to lay off 13 full-time employees (out of 66) and has told another 40 not to report to work, although the latter group will receive health insurance coverage through the end of June, Morris Vogel, president of the Museum since 2008, told The Jewish Week.

“The day we shut down, we lost our income stream,” Vogel said. “These terminations are an unfortunate consequence of the pandemic.

The museum had to cancel its gala fundraiser scheduled for April 23 and is conducting an online campaign. The headline of the letter sent out on March 19 reads: “These are extraordinary times. The Tenement Museum is an extraordinary place. The Museum faces an extraordinary crisis.”

Vogel says, “We are trying to think of our long-term future. The only way to do that is to fundraise to pay our bills. We are keeping enough staff on so that we can start things up again with a core of people we can rely on. By paying their health insurance, we can try to help them though this pandemic. These are people with enormous talent, on whom we depend now and will depend on in the future.”

Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum includes three buildings on Orchard Street, refashioned into a museum space, educational center, Museum shop and office. An affiliate site of the National Park Service, it gets more than 280,000 visitors a year and has to turn away thousands of others because of space limitations. In 2014, the museum began a major expansion that allowed them to add an exhibit that tells the stories of Holocaust survivors in America.

The museum has an endowment of $2.7 million, and it owes about $9.5 million on long-term bonds to pay for the buildings. It owes about $50,000 a month in payments on the debt, and also needs to pay about that much for health insurance.

In the past it has raised funds though a mix of philanthropy, support from New York City, visitors to the museum and donors “who care about the stories we tell and the way we tell them,” Vogel says. The museum generates 75 percent of its operating costs through earned revenue. That funding source is gone.”

“For me, the museum represents a covenant across the generations,” Vogel, who immigrated to America from Germany as a young child, says. He was born in Kazakhstan in 1945.

Vogel continues: “We are about people who came to this country not knowing what they would find here, we are about people who had to struggle, to build lives, to make homes, to raise families, to educate their children, to earn their livelihoods, in often difficult circumstances. Their bravery is what made our lives, our communities, our futures possible. We have an obligation to them to get through this moment; I hope we can display a fraction of the bravery they exhibited.”

The positions that were terminated are in the areas of marketing and communications, visitor services, the museum shop and education. The employees still working are following a pattern of one week on, one week off.

The museum now has online learning available on their website and are expanding their offerings (tenement.org).

The gala was to have honored playwright David Henry Hwang, filmmaker Renee Tajima-Pena and museum co-founder and artist Anita Jacobson. At last year’s Gala, one of the honorees, Vartan Gregorian, who heads the Carnegie Corporation of New York said, “While America is not perfect, it is perfectible.”