Philadelphia Museum of Art staffers say complaints about former exec ‘barely scratch the surface’
“We believe their stories and admire their courage,” the statement reads.
Hundreds of current and former Philadelphia Museum of Art staff members have signed a statement in solidarity with the women who spoke out in a New York Times report against a former museum executive. Calling for structural change, the signers say the allegations levied against Joshua R. Helmer “barely scratch the surface.”
According to the extensive Times report published Friday, Helmer, who worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as assistant director of interpretation from 2014 to February 2018, entered into relationships with subordinate female museum staffers while offering possibilities for professional advancement.
Until recently, Helmer served as the executive director of the Erie Art Museum. On Monday afternoon, the museum said in a statement from its board of directors that Helmer “is no longer employed at the Erie Art Museum.” A petition had called for his removal.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, current and former art museum staffers expressed their solidarity with the women who spoke out in the article.
“Former and current staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art listed below wish to express solidarity with our current and former colleagues who so bravely spoke out in the New York Times and those in Erie who did the same. We believe their stories and admire their courage,” the statement reads. As of Monday afternoon, the spreadsheet had been signed by more than 240 current and former museum staffers.
The list includes several notable names, including Kathleen 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.
The staffers signed “as individuals, not as official representatives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
“The reporting in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer seems to barely scratch the surface of the abuses perpetrated by this man and we acknowledge that 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.”
In a statement, Philadelphia Museum of Art Director and CEO Timothy Rub told the Inquirer that “we are listening closely and we are also taking action."
“We care deeply for our staff and firmly believe that all voices should be heard,” Rub’s statement said. “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.”
The Erie Art Museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Helmer, 31, separated with Philadelphia’s art museum in February 2018, and has been barred from the museum premises, according to an internal email sent in November 2019.
Following the report Friday, many Art Museum employees were seen wearing red “We Believe Women” buttons in a show of support for “our colleagues and those affected by the harassment,” said one museum staffer.
In an email to staff Friday afternoon, Rub said the institution 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.”