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Philadelphia Museum of Art plans anonymous hotline to report sexual harassment, discrimination

Also on the drawing board is a museum-wide training program covering harassment, discrimination, and anti-bias issues. The moves come after fallout from a published account that detailed the complaints of several women about a former PMA executive.

Philadelphia Art Museum and Boat House row, seen by drone, Oct.1, 2019
Philadelphia Art Museum and Boat House row, seen by drone, Oct.1, 2019Read moreFrank Wiese / Staff

The Philadelphia Museum of Art soon will have an anonymous system in place for staff to report sexual-harassment and discrimination complaints, and a museum-wide training program covering harassment, discrimination, and anti-bias issues is planned to begin next month, according to several people who attended all-staff meetings Monday.

The meetings, regularly scheduled affairs designed to keep employees abreast of museum policies and news, were devoted entirely to issues related to fallout from a Jan. 10 New York Times article that detailed the complaints of several women concerning the behavior of Joshua R. Helmer, 31, who worked as a middle manager at the museum for several years before leaving in 2018.

Helmer subsequently was named head of the Erie Art Museum and departed that position in the wake of the Times article. In that article, several women alleged that Helmer pursued relationships with them while holding out possibilities for professional opportunities.

A lawyer for Helmer, Paul John Susko, said Monday that he was declining to comment for now.

To accommodate the staff at Monday’s meetings, Leslie Ann Miller, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, led two sessions at which she was joined by Nancy Brennan, head of the museum’s human resources department. The museum declined a request from The Inquirer to attend the meetings, and staff members were not allotted the opportunity to ask questions.

According to staff members in attendance, Brennan said the museum will offer two days of on-site, one-on-one counseling sessions, available to all employees, beginning Tuesday. Throughout February, attendees said, the museum also will offer nine sessions encouraging conversations on workplace issues. The sessions will be facilitated by the Anti-Oppression and Resource Training Alliance (AORTA).

A spokesperson for the museum confirmed the programs announced to the staff Monday.

Several who attended the sessions said that the harassment training and anonymous reporting system are welcome and even long overdue.

“It was really heartening to hear that our senior management agrees” with the immediate need for such action, said Sarah Shaw, an employee of the department of education.

Museum educator Adam Rizzo noted that concrete actions — such as the counseling sessions and third-party reporting — represent positive movement but come months too late.

“This isn’t new information, this is information that’s newly being acted on,” Rizzo said after the meetings.

Neither Brennan nor Miller, attendees said, could provide details of a promised outside “cultural assessment” of the museum, discussed by museum director and CEO Timothy Rub at an all-staff meeting last week and at small departmental sessions prior to that.

Rub had said details of the assessment would be forthcoming at Monday’s meetings. They were not, according to staffers in attendance.

A small group of board members is considering proposals for the assessment. What its scope should be, who could best conduct it, and for what purpose are questions still to be answered, according to staffers. Miller said that she would be joined by museum board members Ajay Raju, Jennifer Rice, Romulo L. Diaz Jr., Mary Patterson McPherson, and Zoe Pappas in reviewing options for the assessment. She characterized the group as diverse.

According to attendees, the museum hopes to select a third-party reporting hotline vendor by the end of the week. Brennan reportedly said that the human resources department will make its offices more accessible and private.

“So far, between the department meetings and the [all-staff meeting] last week, this is the most we’ve heard in terms of concrete steps,” said Shaw. “I’m appreciative of any concrete steps, but I wonder why they are taken only in reaction to bad press.”