Philadelphia Museum of Art CEO Timothy Rub offered an apology to the museum’s rank-and-file Wednesday morning during a “town hall” in the museum’s Great Stair Hall that was his first all-staff meeting since allegations surfaced involving the behavior of a former manager.
Rub called for the meeting after a Jan. 10 New York Times article that detailed complaints of several women who worked with Joshua R. Helmer while he was employed at the Art Museum as its assistant director for interpretation.
Rub indicated that his apology, directed to museum staff and to the women who spoke to the New York Times, was for the confidence he had put in Helmer, according to employees who attended the hour-plus meeting held inside the main Art Museum building before it opened to the public.
The Art Museum had declined a request for reporters to go to the meeting — which was attended by about 200 of the museum’s more than 500 employees — but several staffers said Rub offered an address they found short on details.
“I hoped for strong policy statements that empower staff, like, ‘This is how we will respond consistently to reports of harassment,’ ” said Sarah Shaw, a museum educator who attended Wednesday’s meeting. "But I didn’t hear that.”
Instead, she said, museum leadership offered staffers “apologies and admissions of failure, which seem like the bare-minimum first step."
“There was lots of talk about moving forward, but it wasn’t substantive,” she said.
Museum educator Adam Rizzo echoed Shaw’s sentiments.
Specific actions by the museum, like instating an anonymous harassment reporting line, or requiring mandatory antiharassment training, would instill more faith in the institution, he said.
“I would love to believe the apology,” Rizzo said. “But it’s hard to do the work when you believe the institution isn’t holding up their end of things.”
Rub offered this statement Wednesday evening through a spokesperson: “I know that actions speak louder than words. It is my firm commitment to do all that is necessary to address our issues head on.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, employees were allowed to ask questions at microphones.
“I think people felt a little braver as each person spoke,” said one junior-level employee who asked not to be named. “It was still very vague."
One of the topics that came up was the “cultural assessment” by an outside third party that Rub promised to the staff prior to Wednesday’s town hall event. "People were asking, ‘What is this cultural assessment?’ " the junior-level employee said. "Even Timothy said he didn’t know what it was or what it would look like. He told us to be patient.”
Rub said the museum will provide more details on the assessment at an all-staff meeting Monday, employees said.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Rizzo commended colleagues from across the institution — from visitor services to curatorial departments — who expressed their concerns during the town hall.
“They asked questions that were really challenging of [Rub],” he said. “I think that takes a degree of bravery.”
After the Times’ report published, Rizzo and some colleagues drafted a statement of solidarity with the women who spoke out, calling for structural change within the institution. The statement has been signed by nearly 400 current and former museum staff.
“I think people are just angry,” Rizzo said, adding that staffers’ questions at the town hall made it clear that “this isn’t just about Josh.”
Rub has been meeting with individual departments in recent days, but this was the first all-staff meeting since the Times article in which several women alleged that Helmer pursued relationships with them while holding out possibilities for professional opportunities.
Helmer has not addressed the allegations. He declined to talk with the Times about his relationships, attributing the allegations against him as a function of 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 a few days after the Times story appeared and circulation began of online petitions supporting the women quoted in the article.
On Friday, Art Museum board chair Leslie Anne Miller told staff in an email that she would be taking the reins of an assessment that would bring 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."
To “ensure transparency and objectivity, I have agreed to lead this process,” her note said.
The goal of the process is to understand and remedy issues brought forward by the staff, Rub wrote in a separate Friday email to employees. “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," Rub wrote.
After the museum opened to the public following Wednesday’s meeting, museum staff could be seen once again wearing red buttons reading, “We Believe Women.” Some said they felt the meeting conveyed leadership was “trying to do better,” while others felt the apology and town hall felt like too little, too late.
Shaw said she still didn’t have clarity on what a cultural assessment is, how the assessment can be independent if it’s conducted under the board chair, or how the Philadelphia museum’s leadership will be held accountable.
She also said she didn’t feel confident that institutional policies were adequate. “I still don’t know how we’re going to address the systemic inequities that allowed a Josh Helmer to happen.”