Poets House, the poetry library in lower Manhattan founded in 1986, has suspended operations indefinitely, effective immediately, due to budgetary issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The library hopes to reopen late in 2021, provided that the pandemic "is under control" and that the organization "has reconfigured its operations," according to a press release.
"This is an unprecedented moment in Poets House history and, indeed, the world," Robert Kissane, chairman of the Poets House board, said in a statement. "The board took these measures in order to withstand what we all are facing and ensure that the organization and its collections survive."
In order to stem the blood flow, the Poets House board is considering what its representative described as "a variety of fundraising plans and outreach to donors." The representative added: "The approach will need to be re-set given the downsizing."
In the interim, Poets House has laid off nine full-time employees, who, a representative of the board said, have been paid at full salaries and benefits throughout the pandemic; in addition, the organization has pledged to "use its limited reserves to pay staff severance and vacation pay." Two contractual workers were laid off earlier in the pandemic. In addition, Lee Briccetti, the executive director of Poets House for more than 30 years, will retire in 2021, staying on temporarily to work with managing director and CFO Jane Preston to "ensure a seamless transition and manage strategic alliances."
Following the announcement that Poets House would suspend operations, a group of anonymous former employees released a counterstatement. The release argues that the organization's "unexpected closure follows months of staff-led organizing to hold management and the board accountable in light of frequent complaints of workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and exploitative labor practices." In addition, the anonymous employees assert their belief that the closure and layoffs were "a direct, retaliatory response to our efforts to form a union at Poet’s House with UAW Local 2110 and to address discriminatory and exploitative practices at the institution."
In a release addressing the counterstatement, Poets House flatly denied the allegations. "Poets House staff was informed in April 2020, and again in June and August, that Poets House would likely need to downsize, as funds were quickly being depleted and adequate income was not forthcoming due to the pandemic," the statement reads. "While former staff are accusing management and the board of suspicious timing, we note that staff members only filed a petition to unionize on November 4, when they were aware that the financial situation had put jobs in jeopardy," adding: "We look forward to a vibrant workforce in the future, and if a union is part of that, we will welcome it with open arms."
Poets House keeps a poetry library of 70,000 books, which is free and open to the public, in its space at 10 River Terrace in Manhattan's Battery Park, where it will remain; a representative told PW that the organization's uniquely inexpensive lease expires in 2069. While it has long presented live programs, workshops, and exhibits, the organization said in its statement that, upon reopening, it expects to refocus its mission on core library services. In the meantime, Poets House had begun to digitize its collection of chapbooks, many of which are "small, handmade, and limited run."
This story has been updated with further information.