He left a museum after women complained; His next job was bigger

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He left a museum after women complained; His next job was bigger
In an undated image provided by "Articulate with Jim Cotter," Joshua Helmer, who became one of the country’s youngest museum directors when he took over the Erie Art Museum in 2018. Helmer landed the job after leaving the Philadelphia Museum of Art; at both posts, his relationships with female co-workers spawned multiple complaints. Articulate with Jim Cotter via The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin and Zachary Small

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Gina Ciralli, an employee at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who dated Joshua Helmer, a young manager, said that he had made her feel as if he had the power to make or break her career — telling her she “wasn’t smart enough to work at a museum” but that he could help her have “a great trajectory.”

Another woman, Alicia Parks, said he took her for drinks on her second day of work and told her that if she wanted to succeed she should “get to know him.”

“I worked in the NFL for five years,” said Parks, a former Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader, “and no one spoke to me in a way that made me feel that uncomfortable.”

Neither of those women worked directly for Helmer, but they were his subordinates in rank, and three employees who were familiar with their accounts said they reported their concerns to museum managers, starting as early as 2016.

They were never quite sure what happened to their complaints, but in early 2018, Helmer resigned for reasons that have not been disclosed.

Just a few months later, though, he resurfaced, this time with an even bigger job, as the director of the Erie Art Museum in Erie, Pennsylvania, making him one of the youngest museum chiefs in America.

Shortly after, Helmer texted a college student working at the Erie museum, suggesting she come to his house. “Coffee my place I have a cool back deck,” it said, according to a screenshot the woman, Asla Alkhafaji, provided to The New York Times. After she told him she could only meet in public, Alkhafaji said, he began ignoring her at work and one day told her, “You’re the most useless intern we have.”

It is not clear what, if anything, the Erie museum knew about Helmer’s work history when it hired him. The museum said it investigated a complaint by Alkhafaji and found no reason to discipline Helmer, who still runs the museum today.

Helmer, 31, declined to discuss accounts of his treatment of women or his relationships with them, though he said he always followed museum policy.

He also said he had left Philadelphia of his own accord. “It was just my time,” he said. “I was looking for new opportunities.”

The accounts about his tenure at Philadelphia are a parable of the problems faced by institutions, from big corporations to small nonprofits, when employees are accused of objectionable behavior.

A spokesman for the Philadelphia Museum, Norman Keyes, said Helmer “was separated” from the museum in February 2018 and that the museum could not discuss his exit because conditions of departures were confidential.

In a statement, it said that it strives for a workplace “free from harassment or inappropriate behavior of any kind,” and that it investigates complaints “swiftly and thoroughly.”

“In the spirit of ongoing improvement,” the statement continued, “we are reviewing our programs and policies and will continue to do all that we can to make the museum a workplace we can all be proud of.”

Late last year, the museum barred Helmer from entering the building, according to an email it sent to staff members.

The Times spoke with nine women who said that Helmer made advances toward them in the workplace, and with other employees who were aware of this behavior. Four of the women acknowledged they entered consensual relationships with Helmer. Helmer dated two women who directly reported to him, an apparent violation of museum policy, and warned them not to report it, they said.

The women who dated him described a pattern of behavior in which he came to exert power as a boss over them in those relationships, even when he was not their direct supervisor, telling them he would be running the museum someday and had the ability to fire, hire, or promote whomever he pleased.

“He always said he was my indirect supervisor,” said Ciralli, who at 22 dated Helmer while working as a project coordinator on a two-year grant. “He used that as one of the reasons we had to keep our relationship under wraps: ‘If you want to stay at the museum we should probably keep it quiet.’”

New Job, Familiar Complaint
The 143-year-old Philadelphia Museum of Art is known for an important collection that includes works by Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi and Auguste Rodin. As a tourist attraction, it is best known for its cinematic front steps, which Sylvester Stallone ran up in his Oscar-winning movie “Rocky.”

Widely considered a charismatic wunderkind, Helmer, who has a master’s degree in art history from Syracuse University, was made assistant director for interpretation at the Philadelphia Museum in 2014, just four months after arriving.

Last October, after Helmer started leading the Erie Museum, ARTNews named him one of the country’s museum directors under 40 who were shaping their institutions.

Women who dated Helmer said they were attracted to him at first because they found him warm, affectionate and confident. “He was as he is now,” Mekala Krishnan said, “sure of himself, and very convinced that there were a ton of things wrong with the museum world, and that he would be the one to fix them.”

After Rachel Nicholson began dating Helmer, he promoted her and repeatedly told her, she said, “You only got this job because we’re dating.”

“He made clear to me from the beginning he thought it was his job to break me and then train me,” Nicholson said. “He would say, ‘I should fire you, but I love you.’”

Both women said Helmer would berate them at work, sometimes in view of other employees who could see them crying through his glass-walled office. Krishnan described vomiting from the stress.

Despite the treatment, both women, along with Ciralli, remained on good terms with Helmer for a time. Krishnan said she agreed to Helmer’s plea for a phone reference when he needed one for the Erie Art Museum. “He told me he was the scapegoat for things that weren’t going well” at the Philadelphia Museum, Krishnan said. “I felt bad for him.”

Nicholson moved to Erie with him, though she later left.

“When someone calls you stupid and weak and makes you doubt yourself, that seeps in,” she said. “I had come to believe that I needed him to understand who I was and how I could be better.”

At least three employees said they had reported to managers or the museum’s human resources department their concerns about Helmer’s conduct with women while he was employed there.

Some women whom Helmer dated or made advances toward said they had been fearful of speaking out while he was there, because he had represented himself to them as being close to the museum director, Timothy Rub. They told the Philadelphia Museum about their experiences after Helmer left.

In a statement, Rub said he aimed for “an environment in which all of our employees feel valued and respected, and where they are comfortable sharing any concerns they may have about the workplace.”

“It is deeply upsetting that any staff members would feel that their voices are not heard,” he continued. “We will continue to work tirelessly to address any such issues.”

Helmer declined to discuss his relationships. “That’s personal information,” he said. “You keep your personal life private.”

He also suggested the allegations against him were just typical office politics. “You make enemies,” he said.

In Erie, Alkhafaji, the intern, met with the board president and another trustee to discuss the way she said Helmer had been treating her after she turned down his request to come to his house.

Alkhafaji said the board members told her she could not get the apology she sought. Alkhafaji left the museum. “I felt really unsafe,” she said. “He retaliated against me because I declined his advances.”

Stephen Porter, the board president at the time, said in an email: “Upon receiving a communication from a staff member, the Erie Art Museum board of directors took immediate, direct action to investigate and fully address a personnel matter. It was determined that no disciplinary action was required. The matter was dealt with in accordance with museum policies and procedures.”

Andona Zacks-Jordan, the current board president, said in an email that no other allegations have been brought to the board’s attention.

At the Philadelphia Museum, education department employees were called to a meeting in November after a reporter raised questions about Helmer’s tenure. At the meeting, employees said, they were told the museum could not share information about Helmer’s departure.

Parks asked why Helmer was still allowed to come and go from the museum. (The Philadelphia Museum has a working relationship with the Erie Museum through a program in which it lends work to smaller Pennsylvania institutions.)

Later that day, Marla Shoemaker, a senior curator, wrote in an email to the staff that the museum’s security director “will put notices up for all security officers at all PMA buildings that Josh Helmer is not to be allowed in.”

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