A college student who told the New York Times about her questionable interactions with former Erie Art Museum director Joshua R. Helmer says that she is glad Helmer is no longer in his position but that the museum should have acted sooner.
“He disrespected me,” Asla Alkhafaji told the Erie Times-News about Helmer. Before he led the Erie institution, Helmer was the assistant director of interpretation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where current and former employees also told the New York Times he fostered personal relationships with more junior-level women while holding out opportunities to advance their careers. He separated from the Philadelphia museum in early 2018 for undisclosed reasons.
Alkhafaji, who was 19 in 2018 when she says Helmer, then the Erie museum’s executive director, pressured her to take his phone number and invited her to his house, told the Times-News that his behavior was “not normal.”
“I don’t think a boss who is 29 years old inviting a 19-year-old lady to his house is normal at all,” she told the paper. After Alkhafaji, a Gannon University student who was completing a work-study job at the art museum, rebuffed Helmer’s text invitation to visit his home with a “cool back deck,” she said the director’s attitude toward her changed. He became cold and later told her she was ”the most useless intern we have,” she says.
Alkhafaji told the Times-News she ultimately met with members of the Erie museum’s board of directors about Helmer, requesting an apology “because I did not do anything wrong to him and he was disrespecting me.”
Alkhafaji, who moved to the United States from Iraq, told the Times-News that she “moved here to get a better future” but that "nobody in the world treated me this way.”
As of Monday, Helmer, 31 was “no longer employed at the Erie Art Museum,” according to a statement posted on the museum’s Facebook page. The notice came days after the Times article published, alleging that Helmer entered into relationships with more female subordinate employees while dangling chances for professional advancement.
He told the New York Times that the allegations against him were a result of office politics. “You make enemies,” he said.
The Times article prompted outrage in both communities. In Erie, a Change.org petition calling for Helmer’s firing garnered more than 3,000 signatures. In Philadelphia, museum staff also wore red buttons reading “We Believe Women” to work and spoke out on social media using the hashtag #MuseumMeToo. A petition expressing solidarity with the women in the Times article and calling for “structural change” has been signed by more than 350 current and former Philadelphia Museum of Art staff members, including a handful of highly regarded museum curators.
“Honestly, they should have terminated him from his position immediately,” Alkhafaji told the Times-News. “Surprisingly, nothing happened, and I don’t know why. I have no clue. Maybe he’s good at his job or whatever. But, after what a lot of women talked about, I think they do have to take action — not need to, they have to — because it’s important.”