Alison Caplan loved the Akron Art Museum in Ohio, where she worked for almost 15 years. But after raising repeated concerns about the museum’s lack of implicit bias training, she was fired last year from her position as the director of education, she said, and asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
After Jen Alverson complained in a letter to management about the unfair treatment of women art handlers, she saw her hours reduced and was cut almost entirely out of exhibition installs. Around the same time, she claims, another manager trapped her at the security desk, asking about her workout routine and calling her “baby.” She complained twice to an administrator and says she was told not to speak about her experience with other employees.
And when executives announced layoffs last month due to the coronavirus pandemic, the museum’s collections manager and exhibitions registrar, Chrissy Marquardt, resigned after she was transitioned to part-time work and barred from completing most of her regular tasks. She also believed that the measures had unfairly targeted staff who had written a 2019 letter calling for the removal of the museum’s director and chief executive officer, Mark Masuoka.
Twenty-seven employees—roughly a third of all staff members—anonymously wrote the letter of complaint, which was addressed to the Akron Art Museum’s board of directors. Only one remains employed by the Ohio institution, now on a part-time basis; the others have either resigned, been fired, or were laid off by the museum during the Covid-19 shutdown.
“What we are seeing is severe mismanagement by leaders who are using the pandemic as a scapegoat,” said Alverson. “I’ve watched countless coworkers leave or be pushed out because of a lack of professional leadership.”
Overtures of solidarity and self-sacrifice have increasingly rung hollow for workers at some of America’s largest museums as executives are forced to reckon with cutbacks that overwhelmingly impact staff. And decisions about who stays and who goes during the economic shutdown have caused many employees to revisit past controversies as examples of what they view as poor leadership that may have exacerbated the stress of coronavirus on the museum world.
At the Akron Art Museum, tensions boiled over after the museum started confronting the harsh realities of a $933,000 shortfall due to Covid-19. On March 30, Akron Art Museum executives told the press that some of its 35-member full-time staff would be furloughed while others would see their hours cut back to part-time; workers would receive full wages until the beginning of May. That same day, however, several employees received an emailed letter from the human resources department with different details: they were being laid off and their last paychecks would come on April 17. The laid-off employees now say they have yet to receive their checks, or have been underpaid for their time owed.
“Your position is now classified as ‘laid off’ because we don’t have any available hours for you to work at this time,” reads the letter, which was reviewed by ARTnews. “It is too soon to say who and when will be called back to work, and if so, what type of work schedule will be available at that time.”
Responding to a request for comment, the museum denied having strayed from its planned approach to managing its shutdown, but the apparent contrast between the Akron Art Museum’s public and private messages concerning the fate of its staff has reignited allegations of mismanagement.
When workers wrote their letter of complaint, it was to outline claims of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, intimidation, and conflict of interest. Reacting to the letter’s allegations, Akron’s board of directors hired the law firm Kastner Westman & Wilkins, which investigated the claims and found the majority of them to have merit, according to current and former employees who were interviewed by the firm. ARTnews spoke to more than a dozen current and former employees who corroborated accounts of both the allegations and the investigation.
“As always, our long-term mission and top priority is to maintain the integrity of one of Akron’s most important cultural assets,” a museum spokesperson told ARTnews, saying the organization does not publicly comment on personnel matters. “That investigation was completed shortly thereafter and, where appropriate, actions were taken to address any substantiated concerns.”
Several complaints in the letter concerned the museum’s former chief of staff and director of special projects, Jennifer Shipman, who also served as a human resources administrator before Akron hired its own devoted human resources representative. According to four former employees, Shipman had dismissed requests by staff for implicit bias training after the museum’s facilities manager allegedly made several racist comments to his direct reports. (The manager later resigned from his post.) Another employee asked for such training after the front desk allegedly refused entry for a school tour of black children; again, Shipman denied the request, calling the teacher who complained “defensive” in an email and questioning if the children had a “bias on their end.” In another conflict, Shipman defended an employee in the social media department who was caught photographing young women in the cafeteria without their consent; she described the female visitors as “little bitches,” according to three employees.
Shipman ultimately left in August after the museum found that she was using the institution’s facilities without permission to store artworks made by Mark Mothersbaugh, lead singer of the new wave band Devo, which rose to fame with its 1980 hit “Whip It.” (Mothersbaugh’s work had been the subject of a solo show at the museum in 2016.) On Mothersbaugh’s website, Shipman is now listed as the musician’s studio director.
Shipman told ARTnews that she and the museum mutually agreed to separate after she learned that one of her parents had Stage 4 cancer. “I wish nothing but continued success for the museum as it is a valuable community resource,” she said.
“When you tried to do something right, you were made to feel like a snitch,” said Amanda Crowe, an educator who was recently laid off by the museum after working there for almost 7 years. “It’s hard to express just how chaotic, disorganized, and unstable it’s been.”
“Not only did I have to claw my way into a job at the museum, but I knew that I was being paid at the bottom of the barrel,” said Jessica Fijalkovich, who was recently laid off from her position as Akron’s library and archives manager. “I love the museum, but I was better off when I worked three part-time jobs.”
“We were treated differently,” said Alverson. When her male peers were tasked with unloading trucks filled with artworks, she says she was instructed to scrub the floors with other female colleagues. She even watched as a team of men were hired to install Viola Frey’s The World and the Woman (1992) sculpture while women capable of the job were sidelined. After getting input from her female coworkers, Alverson sent a letter of complaint with her yearly review, which happened to fall on August 26: Women’s Equality Day.
But when women at the museum complained about gender discrimination, administrators often failed to act, employees said. The perceived lack of repercussions for men who behaved badly at the museum impacted how women saw their career trajectories in Akron. And six months ago, Alverson resigned from the museum. “I feel for all the wonderful people I left behind who are trapped under that management,” she said.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Akron Art Museum was already facing significant challenges. Membership had been down, longtime donors were suspending their gifts, and departmental budgets were being cut, according to three former managers. The board’s investigation further damaged the relationship between trustees and the museum’s executive staff. Nevertheless, the board kept Mark Masuoka on as the museum’s director and chief executive officer.
The board’s decision rankled staff who believed that the director was at the root of the museum’s alleged problems. Employees said that their decision to pen a letter of complaint was prompted by Masuoka’s firing of Caplan, the museum’s former education director, who had pushed for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion while at the institution. Three employees also told ARTnews that Masuoka used derogatory language in a meeting to describe the city’s black population, calling them “Summit Lake people,” a reference to a poor Akron neighborhood with a large African American community. According to the employees, Masuoka said that black visitors from Akron wouldn’t be able to access the mobile applications the museum developed because they used “throwaway gangster phones.”
Through a spokesperson, Masuoka declined to comment on the allegations.
Upset with management, workers had begun to organize a union last year. Inspired by the successful organizing campaigns of staff at the Guggenheim Museum and the New Museum, employees in Akron held several meetings to discuss the costs and benefits of collectivizing; they were just two signatures shy of cementing their bargaining unit before key organizers started leaving the museum in droves.
“I had better diversity and sexual harassment training in the military than what you would expect from an art museum,” Christopher Harvey, a black army veteran who worked at Akron as a security guard and building services associate until he was laid off in March, told ARTnews. Harvey said there were several instances where he felt discriminated against by his manager, who he says would often mention the color of his skin within earshot of visitors. During his time at the museum, the facilities crew (one of the most racially diverse departments in the museum) was, as outlined in the staff letter of complaint, also banned from entering the staff break room and told by a manager to take their breaks in the boiler room after another employee complained about waiting in line to make coffee.
Recalling his time at the institution, Harvey said, “I loved the museum, but not the current leadership.”