Joshua R. Helmer is no longer executive director of the Erie Art Museum, following a recent New York Times article raising questions about his behavior with women in that position as well in his previous job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Helmer, 31, is “no longer employed at the Erie Art Museum,” according to a terse, unsigned statement posted on the museum’s Facebook page Monday afternoon. "The Museum appreciates, in advance, the community’s support as we move forward.”
A man answering the phone at the Erie museum Monday, who declined to identify himself, said the museum would have no further statement at this time.
Pressure for Helmer’s removal began to mount over the weekend with the circulation of a change.org petition calling for the art executive’s removal. The story in the Times alleged that Helmer entered into relationships with more junior-level female employees while holding out chances for professional advancement.
Helmer, who was the first person to occupy the post of assistant director of interpretation, separated from the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2018 for undisclosed reasons. He declined to discuss his relationships with the Times. "That’s personal information,” he told the newspaper. “You keep your personal life private.”
He came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2013 and was a favorite of director and CEO Timothy Rub, according to Art Museum staffers. Rub declined to talk with The Inquirer, but said in a statement Monday:
“We care deeply for our staff and firmly believe that all voices should be heard. We are listening closely and we are also taking action. As I noted to staff last Friday, we will be engaging outside consultants to conduct a close review of our workplace environment, our policies and programs, including training activities so we understand how we can be better in the future. We will do everything we can to address the concerns of staff so that we can move forward together.”
Art Museum staffers have voiced frustration with the way management handled complaints about Helmer, and by the time the Times published its story last week, their frustrations could be found in comments online and in the form of “We Believe Women” buttons they wore to work.
Rub, in an email to staff Friday afternoon co-signed by Art Museum president Gail Harrity, assured staff that the museum was interested in employees feeling “comfortable sharing any concerns they may have about the workplace. This is not simply an obligation, but also a strongly held belief.” The email said the museum had “initiated plans to work with outside experts who will gather input from staff and conduct a review of our workplace environment, our policies and programs, including training activities, so we understand how we can be better in the future.”
But these moves did not quell the anger. Art Museum employees were among the more than 3,000 who signed the change.org petition started by Erie activist Katie DiPrinzio urging Helmer’s removal, with many adding pointed comments.
DiPrinzio, 29, said she was “really angered and troubled” after reading the Times article, which spurred her to launch the internet petition.
“Erie is a really, really small city,” she said. “We have one museum, this is it, and we care about what happens there."
After the museum announced Helmer’s departure, DiPrinzio, in an interview with The Inquirer, said questions remain: Why was he hired? What will prevent something similar from happening again?
On Monday, a separate statement of solidarity, drafted by museum staffers and approved by the women who spoke to the Times, was signed by more than 250 current and former Philadelphia Museum of Art employees. In part, it read:
“This is not an isolated incident unique to one institution but endemic to the field. We call for greater accountability from the institution for which we work and about which we care so deeply. Structural change is required to ensure that abusers aren’t enabled, employees feel safe reporting abuse, and no one fears retaliation for coming forward. Museums can and should do better.”
Among those from the Philadelphia Museum of Art staff who put their names to the statement are highly regarded curators Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American art and director of the museum’s Center for American Art; Felice Fischer, curator of Japanese art and senior curator of East Asian art; Peter Barberie, the museum’s curator of photographs; and Elisabeth Agro, associate curator of American modern and contemporary crafts and decorative arts.
After Helmer’s departure from Erie was announced Monday, Adam Rizzo, a museum educator at the Philadelphia museum who helped to draft the statement, expressed a need for continued change at the institution.
“It’s great Josh is no longer in a position of power and can’t harm anyone anymore. But what I still find frustrating is that the structural inequities that allowed him to thrive are still in place," Rizzo told The Inquirer. “This guy, he created a toxic environment in the museum. He was so close with management, we felt powerless to do anything.”
Rizzo said the women who spoke to the Times about Helmer helped him and his colleagues to “actually take some action.”
“If they can speak out, we can do this petition, we can send out a tweet,” he said.
In announcing Helmer’s appointment to the job in Erie in May 2018, the museum’s former board president, Stephen Porter, said that “while at the PMA, Josh was tasked with leading the museum in a complete rethinking of how it engaged its nearly 800,000 visitors a year.”
Porter concluded: “I am confident that we now have exactly the type of dynamic, enthusiastic leader the Erie Art Museum — and this region — needs. Please join me in welcoming Josh to our community.”