OAKLAND -- The city is considering a plan to hand over control of the Oakland Museum of California to the museum foundation.
The plan being worked out between the two sides would end the role the city has played since the museum opened in 1969, prompting fears among workers that they will lose their jobs.
Museum Executive Director Lori Fogarty stressed Thursday during a regular meeting of the Oakland Museum of California trustees that the decision to explore the plan was just "the beginning of a discussion" between the two sides.
But staff, volunteers and trustees voiced concerns about what the move would mean to individuals and the museum because of the intricate relationship between the museum and the city. Someone asked if the decision meant the two were "getting a divorce."
The city is in charge of day-to-day operations and owns the building and the collections currently housed there. The two sides share governance and split the payroll of more than 100 employees.
"This could impact everyone's job, including mine," Fogarty said Thursday. She is one of 44 full-time museum employees paid by the City of Oakland.
Senior Curator Rene de Guzman also is a city employee.
Another 55 employees are paid by the Oakland Museum of California Foundation. Because of the overlap, some jobs might be eliminated.
And the two sides will have to parse out the sticky question of what happens to employees' pensions if they are hired -- or not -- by the foundation during the transfer. Foundation employees also could be let go.
The workers' unions will be an important player in the process, Fogarty said. The museum already started talks with City Attorney John Russo and City Administrator Dan Lindheim.
The dual city-museum structure hampers the museum's continuing sustainability and viability, City Administrator Spokeswoman Karen Boyd wrote in an e-mail.
"As the City looks at its core services in the current challenging economic climate," she wrote, "the Foundation stepped forward to propose a review of the operating structure and the City and Foundation are beginning that review process."
The foundation also hired a law firm to navigate the labor issues that would arise from the new relationship with the city. The foundation proposed the split to the city, which has been looking for ways to cut expenses. Board Chairman Lance Gyorfi said they wanted to make the museum less vulnerable to city-imposed budget cuts and streamline operations.
The city imposed a hiring freeze at the museum in 2008, making it impossible to replace several positions that opened up in the meantime. City staff also must take off furlough days even though the museum remains open on those days.
The proposal signals a vote of confidence among trustees that the foundation can attract the funds needed to support the museum financially despite a drop in revenue.
The foundation reported revenues of $17.7 million in 2008, compared to $9.8 million last year, records filed with the IRS show.
But the museum is in the midst of a $62 million campaign and a major renovation of the 41-year-old building.
The plan will have to be approved by the Oakland City Council and the Oakland Museum of California Foundation Board of Trustees.
That would not take place until early 2011 at the soonest, Fogarty said.
Until then, the existing terms between the two sides as authorized in a 2006 agreement will continue.
Taking over operations is part of a comprehensive overhaul of the entire museum, Gyorfi said Thursday.
If the city rejects the proposal, he said, "We'll find a new plan B. But we can't go back."