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Relationships of former Philadelphia Museum of Art exec raised concerns and complaints, report says

A former administrator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art had been considered a “golden boy,” but has now moved on to the Erie Art Museum. It remains unclear why he and the Philadelphia museum separated.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art as seen by drone, January 9, 2020.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art as seen by drone, January 9, 2020.Read moreSteven M. Falk and Frank Wiese / Staff

A Philadelphia Museum of Art executive entered into relationships with female subordinate museum staffers while dangling possibilities for professional advancement, according to an account of his tenure published Friday in the New York Times.

Joshua R. Helmer, who worked as assistant director of interpretation starting in 2014, pursued several women during his time there, the report said.

Helmer, 31, and the museum separated in February 2018, and he is now executive director of the Erie Art Museum. That institution’s board of directors is reviewing the Times story “and will respond in a timely manner,” according to a Friday statement.

Helmer declined to discuss his relationships with the Times, saying only that he followed museum policy. Of his separation from the Philadelphia museum, he said, “It was just my time. I was looking for new opportunities.”

He has been barred from the museum premises, according to an internal email sent in November 2019. "Beginning this evening, Josh Helmer will not be allowed in our buildings,” wrote education department senior curator Marla Shoemaker.

Beyond acknowledging that it employed Helmer from 2013 to 2018, the Art Museum declined to comment on any aspect of his time there or the circumstances of his departure. The Times said that museum managers had been made aware of concerns about Helmer, but that it was unclear what happened to the complaints.

Several current and former Art Museum staffers told The Inquirer that Helmer was viewed as a “golden boy," and a favorite of museum director and CEO Timothy Rub. On Friday, a cone of silence seemed to descend over the museum, with several staff members saying they had been directed not to talk with reporters and others declining to do so “in this instance,” as one put it.

Many Art Museum employees on Friday could be seen wearing red buttons that read “We Believe Women in a show of support for “our colleagues and those affected by the harassment,” said one museum staffer. Museum employees working with the public were first told by the administration to remove the buttons, but that directive that was reversed Friday afternoon, staffers said.

Rub, in a statement, said it was “vitally important to me as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to create and sustain an environment in which all of our employees feel valued and respected, and where they are comfortable sharing any concerns they may have about the workplace. This is not simply an obligation, but also a strongly held belief. For this reason, it is deeply upsetting that any staff members would feel that their voices are not heard. We will continue to work tirelessly to address any such issues.

“Our topmost priority is to ensure that the museum is a place we can all be proud of, free from harassment or inappropriate behavior of any kind," he continued. "If we learn of any complaints of this type or are notified of violations of the museum’s policies, we will move to address them and to take appropriate action regardless of when the behavior is reported to have occurred.”

A museum spokesperson declined to confirm or deny if a legally binding nondisclosure agreement constrained the Art Museum’s comment on the matter.

Art Museum board chair Leslie Anne Miller also declined to comment about Helmer on Friday.

Museum policy encourages employees to report instances of perceived discrimination or harassment to supervisors or, if that is not feasible, to the human relations department. In place since February 2010, the policy explicitly cites “demands for sexual favors in exchange for favorable or preferential treatment” as prohibited behavior.

Rub, in an email to staff Friday afternoon, said the museum had “initiated plans to work with outside experts who will gather input from staff and conduct a review of our workplace environment, our policies and programs, including training activities, so we understand how we can be better in the future.”

The women named in the Times story, contacted by The Inquirer in recent weeks — none of them still work for the Art Museum — either declined to comment or did not respond to messages. Four of the women the Times spoke with acknowledged that they entered consensual relationships with Helmer, the article said.

Helmer joined the staff of the museum in September 2013 as a Kress Interpretive Fellow in the European painting department.

The following year, he was named assistant director for interpretation, a new position in the education department that gave him wide latitude in crafting the museum’s public face — from editing labels in galleries across all curatorial departments to creating digital presentations to entice the public.

“The goal of interpretation is finding where knowledge and curiosity meet,” Helmer said in an announcement of his hiring published in the Art Museum’s 2014 annual report.

Although his post as assistant director was mid-level, Helmer was given considerable leeway in his work, current and former Art Museum staffers told The Inquirer.

“While at the PMA, Josh was tasked with leading the museum in a complete rethinking of how it engaged its nearly 800,000 visitors a year,” said the Erie Art Museum’s former board president, Stephen Porter, in a May 2018 social media post announcing Helmer’s appointment as the museum’s executive director.

Porter didn’t respond to calls seeking comment, nor did any current members of the Erie Art Museum board. Its governing body is currently made up of eight members, according to the museum website, and is led by Andona Zacks-Jordan, a lawyer.

The board is smaller than it used to be and has undergone significant turnover in the two years since Helmer’s hire, according to John Vanco, who was director of the museum for nearly five decades and retired in 2017. Federal tax records show the board was twice its current size in 2016.

Both Vanco and his wife, Kelly Armor — who worked at the Erie museum as director of education until she left in late 2018 — said they told Porter of what they saw as troubling information about Helmer in the fall of 2018. Armor said she told Porter specifically of concerns regarding Helmer’s treatment of Asla Alkhafaji, an employee on work-study named in the Times story, whom Armor worked closely with.

Alkhafaji told the Times that Helmer suggested by text messages that she come to his house for coffee and she declined, saying she would only meet in public. Helmer then began ignoring her at work and later said, “You’re the most useless intern we have," the woman told the Times. Armor said she told Porter of her concerns after Alkhafaji showed her the text messages, and that Porter later relayed that the issue had been handled.

Vanco, who said he had never met Helmer despite efforts to reach out to him, said he was “ashamed” of how the board of directors has dealt with complaints about Helmer, saying the board seems “clueless.” He said he was worried about the reputation of the Erie Art Museum.

“I can’t say how disturbed I am by all of this,” he said. “I literally put my life into the institution.”

Helmer’s former colleagues at the Philadelphia museum described him as diligent in reviewing the galleries, always with an eye toward making the art more accessible to the public. In the case of labels, that meant keeping them short and snappy, under 100 words.

He ran into some pushback from curators, particularly when it came to a few of the museum’s signature works.

He wanted to cut the lengthy label on Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic but relented when curators balked, arguing for the significance of the painting as a great artwork and a pivotal part of 19th century science, medicine, and Philadelphia history. Helmer relented.

In October, he was singled out in an ARTnews story titled "Museum Directors Under 40: A Brief History of 20 Young Leaders Who Helped Shape Their Institutions.”

The trade journal gave him the honor also achieved by legendary U.S. art museum leaders such as Thomas Hoving, Metropolitan Museum of Art director in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s own Anne d’Harnoncourt.

“ARTnews is a very, very big deal in the national and international art world,” Helmer told the Erie Times-News. “This one is kind of cool.”