A Philly Art Museum boss hit his workers. They complained. He kept his job for two more years.
In 2016, the museum launched an internal investigation after multiple employees reported James A. Cincotta slapped a 20-something gift shop worker in the head, bringing her to tears. She quit that day. He stayed for two more years.
The all-staff meeting that Philadelphia Museum of Art director and CEO Timothy Rub convened last month was intended to assure workers that the museum, battered by allegations about misconduct by a once-prominent assistant director, would take seriously any claims of workplace harassment.
But as Rub apologized for the handling of complaints against the former assistant director, Joshua R. Helmer, some of the 200-plus employees demanded answers about the institution’s tolerance of another well-paid but controversial manager, James A. Cincotta.
After Cincotta was hired as the museum’s retail director in 2015, staffers who worked for him began reporting what they said was routinely abusive behavior. Cincotta slapped, punched, pinched, shoved, grabbed, and verbally berated workers, according to interviews with 14 current and former museum employees.
Sometimes when he lashed out, staff thought it was meant as a playful joke; other instances were unmistakably not. In 2016, the museum launched an internal investigation after reports by multiple employees — including one complaint directly to the museum president— that Cincotta slapped a 20-something gift-shop worker in the back of her head, bringing the woman to tears.
She quit that day. Cincotta kept his job for two more years.
He was let go in 2018 but routinely returned to the museum as a board member for Collab, a group that hosts exhibition previews and other events for PMA members. When staffers saw him in the building late last year, they grew so concerned for colleagues who had worked with him that they contacted security and human resources.
To some, Cincotta’s tenure at the museum and management’s response to the stream of complaints about him was more than a case of individual misconduct; it was emblematic of a culture that protected senior staff at the expense of lower-tier workers.
“That they would allow a known abuser to participate in the museum in any way was very demoralizing and upsetting,” said one employee, who stated that Cincotta slapped him in the face in 2017 in view of several people. He asked not to be named for fear it could hurt his future job prospects. “It was a clear signal to many people that they did not value workers’ rights,” he said.
On Friday, museum employees are expected to attend a meeting hosted by VallotKarp, a New York-based firm hired to perform a “cultural assessment” of the museum and recommend changes. In an email sent to employees and reviewed by The Inquirer, board of trustees chair Leslie Anne Miller said the firm has been directed to involve staff in the process.
Helmer, whose conduct was first reported last month by the New York Times, has been barred from entering the museum since November. During last month’s meeting, employees asked why Cincotta had not been barred as well. According to several attendees, Rub said he could not discuss details of the situation. But after the meeting, Cincotta was quietly banned from the premises, staffers said.
Approached at his Philadelphia home this month, Cincotta declined to speak with The Inquirer about his tenure at the museum. He did not respond to subsequent requests for comment left in a letter, a voice mail, and a text message.
In an emailed statement, museum spokesperson Norman Keyes confirmed that Cincotta’s employment ended June 18, 2018, but declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality regarding personnel matters.
“We have embarked on an important project with outside experts to undergo a thorough review of our workplace culture, including a review of past incidents, general work environment, and existing policies, programs and training activities,” the statement said. “The goal is to build upon our commitment to providing an environment where every member of [the] staff feels secure, respected, and valued, and where issues that arise are handled not only appropriately but as swiftly as possible.”
An unforgettable management style
Displaying works from Paul Cézanne, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and other legends, the museum towering over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has for nearly a century been the crown jewel of the city’s fine arts scene, as well as a major tourist attraction.
Cincotta, 57, had built a background working in retail for companies including Lillian Vernon and Rand McNally when he arrived in January 2015. He has also taught business at Marymount Manhattan College and New York University, according to his LinkedIn profile.
As the museum’s director of retail, his job was to oversee its four gift shops, as well as streamline operations by clearing overstock from the warehouses and improving its e-commerce. On LinkedIn, Cincotta said he turned the museum’s flagging sales into a profitable enterprise within a year. His $161,000 salary made him one of the museum’s highest-paid employees, according to its tax filings.
Staff members who complained about Cincotta said they suspected their accusations were ignored because museum leadership was pleased with his work — similar to how some have asserted the Helmer allegations were treated.
A rising star in the art world after joining the museum in 2014, Helmer was accused by several women of making romantic advances while dangling possibilities for professional advancement. He kept his job for more than a year after colleagues reported concerns about his conduct to management, the Times reported. He left in 2018 to work for the Erie Art Museum, where his behavior came under review after a woman there complained about him. He was removed from that job after the Times story.
Helmer’s attorney, Paul Susko, said Helmer never behaved inappropriately with women at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and that he was never told of any allegations against him.
After the claims about Helmer became public last month, staff wore red buttons to work that read “I Believe Women,” and Rub said in a statement that it had always been “vitally important” to create and sustain “an environment in which all of our employees feel valued and respected.”
But as early as 2015, employees had been sounding alarms about Cincotta.
Nine former and current museum employees told The Inquirer they experienced or saw him grabbing, hitting, and slapping staffers. Ten current and former employees said they reported physical or verbal abuse to human resources. Three said they lost their jobs soon after reporting him, and they suspect their complaints played a role.
Many who worked for Cincotta said his management style included threats of firing, shouting at people for minor mistakes, and mocking those who stood up to him.
But employees said that when Cincotta physically struck people, some were slow or unsure how to react because he usually behaved as if he was kidding. The man who said Cincotta slapped his face at an after-hours event said he did not report it at first because it appeared Cincotta, who was then his former boss, had done it “playfully.”
Marianne Brown, who worked in retail and left in 2016 after 16 years, said Cincotta regularly punched coworkers in the arm during daily morning meetings, and once hit a male colleague so hard it left a bruise.
Julie Lederman, who worked as a consultant for the museum’s wholesale operation until 2015, said Cincotta repeatedly sneaked up behind her while she sat at a desk and pinched the side of her thigh, then laughed when she jumped. She said she asked him to stop, but after the fifth time he did it, she reported it to the museum’s human resources department, along with other inappropriate conduct she’d witnessed.
“I told them that all the complaints they were getting about James were real,” she said. “I said, ‘You need to take this stuff seriously. People are getting physically harmed and verbally tortured.’ ”
As far as Brown knew, nothing came of her report. After that, she said Cincotta demoted her position from full-time hours to an on-call role. She believed it was retaliation and found another job.
Sean McBride, who worked in shipping, said he saw Cincotta punch colleagues on the arm and whack them on the back. In 2016, he said he shared some good news with Cincotta and the manager congratulated him by hitting him in the chest with both hands, briefly knocking the wind out of him.
“I was like, ‘What the hell was that?’ ” McBride said. “We’re not at a bar, we’re not at a fraternity, we’re not buddies, and we’re not watching a football game. We’re there to work. This is a store. In a museum.”
McBride said when he eventually reported it, he also handed over notes he took on Cincotta’s behavior. Soon after that, he said, he learned his position was being eliminated. Cincotta told him the museum was “cutting the deadweight.”
‘Crying and shaking’
Cincotta had been at the museum for about a year when he was accused of striking the female gift-shop worker in the back of her head.
The woman was one of a handful of employees working in a gift store outside the special exhibition space in February 2016. Another staffer in the room said she heard Cincotta speaking angrily, then a slapping sound. When she turned, she saw that her colleague was in tears. A third colleague told The Inquirer that he walked into the room and saw the worker crying as Cincotta yelled in her face.
The woman did not respond to requests for an interview. Two employees told The Inquirer she had detailed the encounter to them, and three former employees said they witnessed the aftermath.
One, Francesca Savini, was at work when she heard about the incident, and asked the woman if she wanted to call the police.
“She was crying and shaking,” Savini said. “She said, ‘I just want to go home.’ ”
Eric Davidson, then the manager of that gift shop, said when someone told him that Cincotta “hit somebody in the head,” he rushed to the scene and the woman tearfully recounted what happened.
She left the building and never returned to the job.
Davidson said he reported the incident in emails to a human resources staffer and to Gail Harrity, president and chief operating officer for the museum. He said both expressed dismay and promised a thorough review. The HR department did launch an investigation, and several employees said they took it as an opportunity to report other instances of physical abuse by the retail operations director.
But Cincotta continued working.
“For a long time, nothing happens,” Davidson said. “How does somebody hit someone, and everybody knows, and nothing happens?”
At a retail department meeting that spring, Harrity showed up, brought up the complaints about Cincotta — and said he would remain in his job.
“I said, ‘What are we supposed to do when he hits someone again?’ ” said Savini, who soon after quit her job at the museum. “[Gail] really brushed us off. She was very dismissive.”
According to six people who were in the meeting, Harrity indicated that the abuse allegations were unsubstantiated, but she said Cincotta would receive sensitivity training.
“I can’t remember if she said the words that we should ‘move on,’ but that was definitely the gist of what was said,” McBride said. “After that, we knew HR wasn’t there to help us.”
The museum declined to make Harrity available for comment.
Several people who worked under Cincotta left after the 2016 investigation. Those who stayed said they continued reporting Cincotta’s behavior, but it felt futile.
“Getting away with what he did gave him the ability to do whatever he wanted and not get fired,” said Davidson, who said he left the museum in May 2016 because of Cincotta. “From then on, we knew we had no recourse.”
Brown reported Cincotta to human resources after he started asking her to drive him places, she said. She learned in August 2016 that her position was being eliminated, and was offered another museum job with a significant pay cut. She was 60 at the time and had believed she would work at the museum until retirement. Instead, she quit.
Museum staff said they weren’t told the circumstances surrounding Cincotta’s departure in June 2018. According to his LinkedIn, he is now enrolled in a business analytics course through Harvard University.
After Cincotta left the job, he became a board member for Collab, a group that brings in donations via memberships for supporters of contemporary design. He remained a fixture at meetings and museum events.
Those who knew Cincotta’s history assumed he’d lost his job in part due to the allegations against him, so they were shocked to see him back on the property. Last fall, two museum employees contacted human resources after spotting him in the building. In an email sent to the head of security in November and reviewed by The Inquirer, museum educator Sarah Shaw described him as “a known threat to those working here.”
Several staff members said they believe the museum did not sever ties with him until last month’s reports about Helmer. Even after Cincotta was barred from the building, staff members said the administration never announced it.
Brown said it took her a long time to get over leaving the museum because she treasured the work, and had believed it was a place that cared about her. She hopes the leadership will strengthen their policies governing harassment and develop better ways for staff to report problems.
“For a cultural institution, I don’t understand how they don’t trust their employees,” said Brown. “The employees are the heart of the museum. Without the employees, they have nothing.”