For years, it looked like Pittsburgh Filmmakers would never slow down, moving into bigger, newly renovated digs, opening three theaters, growing its academic offerings to accommodate hordes of new students, and entering the digital age with banks of sleek new computers. But on May 13 Filmmakers gave an outward sign that times can get tough for nonprofit media-arts groups, too, laying off four from its staff of just over 40 full- and part-time employees.
The layoffs included faculty member Ed Petrosky, development assistant Shari Paglia, and Adam Abrams and Jim Mueller, two long-time staffers in Filmmaker's equipment office, which maintains and loans out gear to students and artist members working in film, video, photography and digital media. The following week, Petrosky was called back to replace an instructor who resigned to take a job elsewhere. But the cuts remain significant in a smallish organization with a big cultural impact on the region.
The layoffs -- which fell around when Filmmakers announced it was putting on "pause" ambitious plans for a film-and-video campus centered on its own North Oakland headquarters -- were part of a larger belt-tightening, says executive director Charlie Humphrey. After what Humphrey calls "15 years of steady growth," revenue has gone flat, mostly because of stagnating student enrollment, which accounts for the bulk of the group's earned income. One reason is that Point Park University, once the source of one-third of Filmmakers students, began offering its own video production classes last year. But Humphrey said enrollment is down across the board, and that receipts at the group's Harris, Melwood and Regent Square theaters are also "not great" lately. Humphrey says the layoffs take staffing to about where it was in late 2000, at a peak of growth for the organization (which also employs about 40 adjunct faculty).
"We've been very lucky actually we haven't been in this situation sooner," says Humphrey. "This is a last resort."
Perhaps the most surprising layoffs involved Abrams and Mueller, fixtures in both the equipment office and Pittsburgh's community of young moving-picture artists. "It kind of came out of left field," says Abrams. Equipment-office staffers labor to keep Filmmakers' well-used gear running, and provide advice and instruction to borrowers. "I felt that I was really involved in the cause of what was going on," says Abrams. "To just kind of be thrust out, it hurt. ... It was like being broken up with by phone."
Humphrey acknowledges Abrams' and Mueller's skills, but says equipment-office jobs are easier than other positions to fill with part-time and work-study people. Of that, Mueller is well aware: He had worked in the EO since taking a college work-study job there 11 years ago. "I don't hold bitterness toward the institution itself and I hope it finds a way to keep itself afloat," says Mueller. "It's a really valuable resource for artists in the community."
Mueller and Abrams will continue co-curating Jefferson Presents ..., a monthly screening series for avant-garde film and video at Garfield Artworks. Mueller notes that their co-curator, Gordon Nelson, also lost a job last year, when the Carnegie Museum of Art eliminated its film and video department: "We're gonna do a Jefferson Presents ... Gets Laid Off show," he says.