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‘A pretty bleak picture’: Philadelphia Museum of Art reveals to staff what its workplace assessment uncovered

Staff wonders if the board is committed to bringing change to the museum. Board chair Leslie Anne Miller says yes.

Musicians gather on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum for a musical candlelight vigil, with performances by a string ensemble, on July 19.
Musicians gather on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum for a musical candlelight vigil, with performances by a string ensemble, on July 19.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

An assessment of the workplace environment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has found problems and deficiencies at all levels of the hierarchy — from the boardroom on down, museum leaders told staff members at an online meeting Tuesday.

The assessment, conducted by VallotKarp Consulting of New York City and based on extensive staff interviews and focus group sessions, came in the wake of allegations of inappropriate behavior and even abuse leveled against two male managers at the museum. The allegations surfaced earlier this year; neither manager is still employed by the museum.

Leslie Anne Miller, chair of the board of trustees, said the museum was committed to making changes in how the museum treats its staff, how it listens, and whom it hires, with greater diversity and accountability the ultimate goals.

The staff interviews, conducted over the last several coronavirus-riddled months, found that many staff members questioned the museum’s commitment to achieving those precise goals. (VallotKarp did not investigate the allegations.)

“I was encouraged by how honest [the presentation] felt,” said museum educator Adam Rizzo, who had criticized the museum’s initial response to the allegations about the managers and is now among the organizers of an effort to unionize employees. “It didn’t feel watered down. It ... painted a pretty bleak picture of the culture of the museum. It wasn’t an enjoyable thing to hear, but it [was] true to what was going on in our lived experience.”

“There’s very little confidence in senior management to provide a safe workplace,” Rizzo said. “There’s very little confidence in senior management to commit to building diversity and equity and inclusion initiatives. There’s very little confidence among staff that men and women are going to be treated the same in the workplace. And that’s not even getting into some of the responses from nonbinary folks and nonwhite folks.”

Miller said after the staff meeting that “there’s understandably skepticism about the board’s commitment to change. I would hope that we have gained some initial credibility.”

She said the board had already made several recommendations at its June meeting that showed this commitment — not the least being the board’s previously unreported decision to establish an office of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. The director of the office will report to PMA director and chief executive Timothy Rub.

Miller added that the board also wants to implement anti-harassment and bias-related training at all levels and in all museum departments, including the executive suite. She also said that the board is committed to beefing up the human resources department.

None of these measures directly addresses the institutional problems that surfaced earlier this year. In one instance, a middle manager, Joshua R. Helmer, was reported first by the New York Times and then The Inquirer to be suggesting the possibility of professional advancement to junior staff women in exchange for dates.

Helmer declined to discuss his relationships with the Times, saying only that he followed museum policy. His lawyer, Paul John Susko, told The Inquirer at the time that “his separation from the PMA did not involve any sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Another staff member, James A. Cincotta, who headed museum retail operations, was accused of abusing and even striking employees. He declined to comment for a detailed story in The Inquirer, published in February.

Staff members told reporters that the managers’ behavior seemed in violation of museum policy, and was reported to human resources and senior managers. In both cases, the accusations went nowhere.

Not surprisingly, staff members placed lack of accountability and transparency at the top of museum failings in the workplace assessment. The assessment says that staff wants “everyone” to be held accountable for inappropriate behavior.

“It was the inappropriate behavior on the part of these two individuals, and the lack of museum policies to address them, that lead the board to conclude, quickly, that our entire culture needed to be assessed,” Miller said. “There must be ongoing accountability. From the top on down. And it’s up to the board to begin to take steps to start to ensure that process. And we’re committed to the change, and to doing it rapidly.”

Asked for a timeline, Miller said that “additional recommendations will be forthcoming from the board,” and that, as with the conduct of the assessment itself, the board was committed to moving with relative speed. She noted that the assessment was conducted despite the ongoing pandemic and related staff disruptions, most recently a round of furloughs and voluntary separations.

“We made good on our commitment to deliver results in a timely fashion,” she said. “The board, again, sent a clear message for further actions to be taken quickly. And so I can tell you that just as we met, I believe, to the expeditious conduct of the assessment, so too will we pursue change.”

The museum staff is currently engaged in a mail-in union election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board on whether staff will affiliate with AFSCME District Council 47, the main bargaining unit for the city’s white-collar employees. The election results are scheduled to be determined Aug. 6.