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Akron Officials Urge Museum Employees to File Discrimination Complaints As New Claims Surface

Akron Officials Urge Museum Employees to File Discrimination Complaints As New Claims Surface

Akron’s deputy mayor and chief of staff, Annie McFadden, has called allegations of sexism and racism inside her city’s art museum “serious.” In an email to ARTnews, she encouraged anyone with such claims to file with the Akron Civil Rights Commission, an independent body that investigates complaints of discrimination based on background, beliefs, or identity.

Her comments follow last week’s ARTnews report on nearly a half-dozen such allegations against top managers at the Akron Art Museum, who some employees said have used their positions to intimidate and harass staff. The majority of these accusations, detailed in a 2019 letter anonymously sent by roughly a third of the museum’s staff to the Ohio institution’s board, focused on the actions of executive director Mark Masuoka and another senior administrator, Jennifer Shipman, who left the museum in August.

Despite audio recordings and emails capturing some of the claim in the letter, Shipman has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

Former staff members said that administrators retaliated against those who raised concerns about leadership. Of the 27 employees who anonymously wrote the letter of complaint, only one remains employed by the Akron Museum, albeit on a part-time basis; the others have either resigned, been fired, or were laid off during the Covid-19 shutdown. 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.

In a statement earlier this week, Drew Engles, the museum board’s president, said that “appropriate and specific actions were taken by the museum board to comprehensively and directly address any substantiated allegations.” Citing privacy concerns, Engles said that the museum “will not engage in any form of public disclosure, even if doing so would be to the benefit of our reputation.”

But the museum’s statement has not alleviated the concerns of local officials. “Leadership needs to take care of this problem immediately,” said Akron city council member Rich Swarsky, whose ward includes the state-funded museum.

“Everyone is watching,” Swarsky added, referencing the controversy at the museum. “The whole community is watching to see how they address this problem. Nobody wants to see this continue.”

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. And federal disclosure forms also show that the museum’s revenues have dropped nearly $2.2 million between 2019 and 2017. Museum officials are now worried that published allegations of sexism, racism, and intimidation are putting a further strain on the organization’s relationship with a once-loyal base of supporters.

And there may be just cause for concern. On Thursday, one of the museum’s major donors posted an open letter calling for the replacement of Akron’s management team. “It could be done through a resignation or a replacement by the board,” Rogers said in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, referencing Masuoka. “Of course, the longer that this management team stays in place, the worse the damage to the institution is going to become.”

Rogers and his wife have donated more than $2 million for the Akron Museum’s one-acre garden that bears the names of Rogers’ parents, who were also serves as benefactors of the institution. In his letter, Roger said the museum’s board “ignored the pleas of their staff and advice from past funders and trustees” resulting in “ruined careers, departure of talent, rock bottom morale, flight of donors, and sullying of the museum’s impeccable reputation.”

Akron resident Kil Smith had attended the museum’s education programs with her three children for more than seven years, but is now questioning her relationship with the city’s biggest cultural institution after reading the ARTnews report. She decided not to renew her membership last month after the museum laid off one of its educators, Amanda Crowe. “She was the only one that cared for families. I used to be happy attending the museum’s programs, but they have continued to downsize community events in favor of wedding rentals,” Smith said. “I will have to wait and see what action they take before going back.”

Last week, Malissa Vernon, a museum spokesperson, characterized allegations that Akron’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was retaliatory as “flatly inaccurate.” She also stated that the museum would in the coming weeks reinstate 25 full-time employees who were deemed essential after receiving support from the Paycheck Protection Program. However, none of the laid-off workers interviewed by ARTnews have been asked back by the museum. (The federal program requires that companies reinstate any furloughed or laid-off employees to receive loan forgiveness.)

Shipman, the museum’s former chief of staff and director of special projects has also denied all allegations of wrongdoing against her, despite audio records and emails reviewed by ARTnews substantiating some of the claims in the letter to the board.

Following the initial ARTnews investigation, another woman has come forward to share her experiences of sexual harassment while working at the Akron Art Museum.

“The racism and sexism was pretty apparent from the get-go,” said Jane Balog, who had worked as a visitor services associate at the museum for two years while studying at the local university until she was recently laid off. In July 2018, she was responsible for taking care of alcohol inventory during weddings. Balog alleges that, at one event, the groom followed her into the storage room and forced himself on her, trying to kiss her. “The security manager was 10 feet away and he did nothing,” she told ARTnews.

During that same event, she says, she was cornered by a senior museum executive around midnight in the inventory closet. “He was drunk and started rubbing my back,” she recalled. “I was locked in the room with him. It was terrifying.” No action was taken after Balog complained about the two incidents to her supervisor, who purportedly told her that it was a normal occurrence at museum events. ARTnews corroborated Balog’s story with three coworkers whom she confided in shortly after the interaction.

The senior executive did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him. The Akron Art Museum said it would not comment on personnel issues. According to an employee handbook, the museum instituted a sexual harassment policy in 2014 that included “unwelcome flirtations, advances or proposition” and “unnecessary touching of an individual.” Several employees and managers told ARTnews that they have never received formal training on the policy. (Ohio does not require employers to offer sexual harassment training, unlike states including New York and California.)

In his statement, board president Drew Engles said the museum had been “inaccurately criticized,” but that the institution would “make certain that our staff has the resources to continue the excellence that has become their trademark while working in an environment that is inclusive and supportive” and include sexual harassment training when the museum reopens.

At the same moment, however, current and former staff say that years of complaints about leadership have gone unanswered. “We feel gross for still working here and want to quit in solidarity, but we have no other income option,” said one employee who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. According to her, management has failed to directly address the allegations with staff or apologize for the controversy outside of forwarding Engles’ statement after it had been shared with the press.

“I think Mark should resign if he cares about the institution,” said a colleague. “He knows it will be challenging for the museum to work with the community with this kind of reputation.”

For Balog, she hopes that sharing her story will spur the museum to take corrective action. “I wish the board would pay attention to the rights and happiness of their employees,” she said.

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