A Curator Accuses MoMA PS1 of Discrimination for Rescinding a Job Offer After Learning She Had a Baby
Nikki Columbus says PS1's Peter Eleey told her a previous curator was "much less present" after she had a child.
Nikki Columbus, an outgoing editor at Parkett magazine, is suing MoMA PS1 for gender and caregiver discrimination after the museum rescinded a job offer. She claims that the museum was on the verge of hiring her as director of its performance program until chief curator Peter Eleey discovered she had recently given birth.
The complaint, which is being served by the New York Human Rights Commission to PS1’s chief operating officer Jose A. Ortiz, director Klaus Biesenbach, and Eleey, alleges that the museum violated city laws regarding caregivers, pregnancy, and women’s rights.
“This is a blatant example of the discrimination women face in the workplace. Protecting pregnant workers from discrimination matters little if employers can turn around and fire (or refuse to hire) women once they give birth,” Ali Frick, an attorney for Columbus, told artnet News in an email. “Just like sexual harassment, this type of discrimination prevents women’s advancement in the workplace and keeps women at an unequal position in the workforce.”
A representative of the museum told artnet News in email that the institution had not yet received the complaint. “Out of respect for the privacy of all applicants and employees, we don’t comment on individuals’ hiring candidacies or personnel matters,” a statement from the museum said. “MoMA PS1 is committed to a work environment in which all applicants and employees are treated with respect and dignity. We promote equal employment opportunities and do not tolerate any discrimination.”
In April 2017, Columbus, who had learned that Parkett would cease publication later that year, was approached by Eleey about applying for the performance curator job at PS1.
Columbus, who was five months pregnant, was warned by other women not to talk about her child during the interview process. Columbus claims her decision not to disclose her pregnancy was validated when Eleey complained during the interview that the museum’s previous performance curator was “much less present” after giving birth.
After months of interviews, on August 12, PS1 offered Columbus the job, with a start date of September 11, according to the complaint. Because she was still finishing work with Parkett, Eleey suggested that she work part-time for the first few weeks. “I feel confident we can find a solution for that interim period,” he wrote in an email to Columbus on August 17, the complaint says. When she called him to confirm this plan, Columbus suggested a part-time schedule in September, with full-time hours beginning in October. She also requested a higher salary and asked if she could start by working at home, mentioning that she was still recovering from giving birth on July 28.
“Why didn’t you tell me this two months ago?” Eleey allegedly asked. Columbus says she was surprised he hadn’t noticed that she was pregnant when they met shortly before the birth. Days later, the museum wrote Columbus to express regret that they had not been able to meet her terms and that she had rejected the job offer. When she insisted that she still wanted the job, the museum’s chief operating officer, Jose A. Ortiz, wrote that Columbus’s conversations with Eleey “indicated that you would not be able to perform the job as it was structured,” so the offer was “no longer active.”
“Nothing about the position changed. Nothing about Ms. Columbus’s qualifications for the job changed. The only thing that changed was [the museum’s] awareness of Ms. Columbus’s new baby,” the complaint says. “[Columbus] was denied employment opportunities providing substantial compensation and benefits, entitling her to equitable and monetary relief. She has suffered anxiety, humiliation, distress, inconvenience, and loss of wages due to [the museum’s] actions, entitling her to compensatory damages.”
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