Museum CEO apologizes for handling of staff complaints

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Museum CEO apologizes for handling of staff complaints
Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Kelly & Massa.

by Robin Pogrebin and Zachary Small

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Timothy Rub, the director and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Wednesday apologized to hundreds of employees, saying the institution had made mistakes in the way it dealt with a former manager several female staff members have accused of sexual harassment.

Rub’s remarks, made at a closed-door, all-staff morning meeting before the museum opened to the public, addressed the allegations that have surfaced against Joshua Helmer, the former assistant director for interpretation at the museum. In 2018, he left and went on to become director of the art museum in Erie, Pennsylvania, where an intern made a similar complaint.

On Jan. 10, The New York Times reported that several women had accused Helmer of making advances toward them in the workplace during his time at the Philadelphia museum. On Jan. 12, the Erie Art Museum forced Helmer to resign.

Helmer, who did not respond to a request for comment, has denied any misconduct but declined to discuss his relationships with female employees.

The Philadelphia museum has been under pressure to respond to criticism that it had been insensitive to staff concerns before Helmer’s departure. On Jan. 15, Mayor Jim Kenney called for it to “strengthen” its policies regarding sexual harassment. Two Pennsylvania state senators — Pam Iovino and Katie Muth — also called for greater management accountability in cases where sexual misconduct is suspected.

In recent weeks, museum officials met with individual departments before calling the full staff meeting, which was labeled a “town hall.”

In a statement after the meeting, Rub said: “Following on the department meetings, today’s town hall was extremely important, and I know that actions speak louder than words. It is my firm commitment to do all that is necessary to address our issues head on, to ensure that this is a workplace in which people feel secure and fully supported.”

Last week, the Philadelphia Museum’s board chair, Leslie Anne Miller, said in an email to staff members that she would lead a “cultural assessment” — including staff interviews and focus groups with an independent third party — “to understand what brought us here and most importantly what we need to change to be sure it never happens again.”

The Erie Museum posted a statement on its Facebook page announcing that a trustee, Diana Denniston, would play a more active role in day-to-day operations while the museum begins “the long process of recruiting a new executive director.”

“The board has made and will continue to make, improvements to ensure the museum is a great place to work, and that the staff feels safe in voicing their concerns,” the statement said, adding, “The Erie Art Museum is more than just one man.”

Rub’s comments at Wednesday’s meeting, first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, struck several employees in attendance as too little too late.

Some have said that during Helmer’s tenure at the Philadelphia museum, Rub showed tremendous confidence in him, a posture that some felt made it hard to come forward with complaints.

“So at this point, I doubt Timothy does (or will ever) really understand how he personally contributed to this mess,” Jennifer Schlegel, a museum employee in the technology department, said in an email after the meeting.

Kelsey Rhodes, the development assistant in charge of donor engagement and communications, said: “I am tired of hearing, ‘I am sorry you did not feel comfortable coming forward.’ That was not an option for many people, including myself, and there is lasting hurt.

“I am attempting to remain optimistic and be a part of change here as we better our future as an institution,” she continued, “but it’s hard to repair personally when the leadership I am depending on is so reluctant to admit any culpability.”

Adam Rizzo, a member of the education department, commended the “actual apology,” but said he was frustrated that it “was given behind closed doors and only when it was requested.”

“I expected the museum could at least announce mandatory harassment training for all staff and the rollout of an anonymous reporting system,” he added, “but instead all we got was a request for us to be patient while they figure it out.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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