Philadelphia Museum of Art board chair Leslie Anne Miller will take the reins of a “cultural assessment” of the museum’s workplace in the wake of a New York Times report detailing claims by several women regarding the behavior of former Art Museum manager Joshua R. Helmer.
The museum is bringing in “an independent third party to understand what brought us here and most importantly what we need to change to be sure it never happens again,” Miller said in an email to museum staff Friday evening. “This will entail soliciting feedback from you through individual interviews, focus groups or other methodologies.”
To “ensure transparency and objectivity, I have agreed to lead this process,” her note said.
In a separate email sent a few minutes later, museum director and CEO Timothy Rub said he was working with Miller “who is engaging our Board of Trustees in understanding and remedying the issues and concerns you are bringing forward. Nothing is more important to all of us than ensuring that the museum is a safe, welcoming, productive place, free from misconduct of any kind, where all voices are heard, and where there is no fear of coming forward to report any type of concern."
Miller’s message said the process ahead includes “selecting the independent third party, developing the approach and protocol, reviewing existing policies and procedures, and ensuring tangible, actionable and transparent results and recommended next steps.”
It was not clear whether this work is intended to address workplace issues broadly, or specifically investigate the allegations in the Times article plus any other claims of incidents that may have happened in the past at the museum — or both.
Asked Friday night to clarify, Miller said: “I can’t comment on that.”
An Art Museum spokesperson has failed during the last several days to respond to the question of whether an outside firm would investigate claims surrounding Helmer and any other claims anyone may have to bring forth from the past.
The New York Times’ Jan. 10 article alleged that Helmer — who worked for several years as the Art Museum’s assistant director for interpretation — engaged in relationships with subordinate Art Museum female staffers while dangling professional opportunities.
He has not responded to the allegations. Helmer declined to talk with the Times about his relationships, and put down the allegations against him as typical office politics. “You make enemies,” he told the newspaper.
Helmer left the museum in 2018, and then took the top job at the Erie Art Museum — a post from which he was separated Monday, a few days after the Times story appeared, and a change.org petition had gathered about 3,000 signatures. An Erie museum spokesperson on Friday said she did not have current contact information for Helmer.
On Saturday, the Erie museum’s board of directors released a statement announcing that board member Diana Denniston will oversee operations there as the museum seeks a new executive director. The statement said the museum is bringing in unspecified outside resources “to address any concerns” among staff members and that the board hopes to expand to at least 10 members “to add more voices.” It has seven now, down from the 21 listed on its federal tax form filed in June 2018.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has struggled to ease internal anger since the public airing of alleged bad behavior within its normally cloistered walls.
When staffers donned “We Believe Women” buttons in support of several women who had detailed their experiences with Helmer, the Art Museum initially told some staff to remove them, but, after protest, reversed the directive.
An online statement calling for “greater accountability” from the museum is now up to about 400 signatures from current and former Art Museum employees — as well as former interns. (The museum’s 2018 annual report lists about 520 employees.)
On Wednesday, Mayor Jim Kenney, who holds an ex officio position on the Philadelphia Museum of Art board, called on the museum to revamp its personnel policy. Philadelphia’s mayor occupies a board spot by virtue of the fact that the city owns the buildings in which the museum operates.
Rub has been meeting with employees in individual departments at the Art Museum in the last few days to hear concerns and questions, he wrote in his note. The email also said he had asked Miller to lead the process, which could begin as soon as next week.