The Erie Art Museum Has Pushed Out Its Director, One of the Youngest in the US, Amid Sexual Harassment Allegations

The Pennsylvania museum claims it had no knowledge of the history of complaints against Joshua Helmer before the New York Times's investigation.

Joshua Helmer. Photo courtesy of the Erie Art Museum.

This story has been updated. 

Joshua Helmer, the director of Pennsylvania’s Erie Art Museum, has been forced out just three days after allegations of sexual harassment were published in the New York Times. In the wake of the investigation, a petition calling for his ouster received more than 2,600 signatures and a statement of support for the women who spoke out was signed by more than 200 current and former employees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Helmer previously worked.

In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, the museum said: “Joshua Helmer is no longer employed by the Erie Art Museum. The museum appreciates, in advance, the community’s support as we move forward.” The museum did not respond to an inquiry for more information and declined to specify whether he resigned for was fired; Helmer could not be reached.

One of the youngest museum directors in the country, 31-year-old Helmer was hired at the Erie in 2018, despite several complaints filed against him by women at the Philadelphia Museum, where he was an assistant director in the education department.

Soon after the publication of the Times’s story, the Erie Museum said it had not been aware of the previous complaints against Helmer when he was hired. “The Erie Art Museum board of directors takes seriously all allegations of misconduct,” the statement said, following an emergency meeting on Friday, as reported on the local news site Go Erie. “Prior to offering Mr. Helmer the position at the Erie Art Museum, the board, with the help of an employment consultant, conducted due diligence including background checks. No issues were identified during our due diligence.”

Over the weekend, pressure on the museum to act mounted. “In light of… Joshua Helmer’s abusive and predatory conduct toward women, it is time to put pressure on the Erie Art Museum to do the right thing and fire Joshua Helmer,” read the petition. “Whatever benefit this man provides the art museum pales in comparison to the damage that he has done to women.”

Helmer resigned from the Philadelphia Museum in early 2018 under undisclosed circumstances. (He told the Times he left on his own accord.) As of this past November, he has been banned from entering the museum premises. On Friday, several museum staffers were seen wearing “We Believe Women” buttons. Employees who work in public-facing jobs were asked by the administration to remove the pins, but that decision was reversed later in the day, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Joshua Helmer, the director of the Erie Art Museum, on the TV show "Articulate with Jim Cotter."

Joshua Helmer, the director of the Erie Art Museum, on the TV show Articulate with Jim Cotter.

During Zachary Small and Robin Pogrebin’s four-month investigation for the Times, nine women came forward with complaints about Helmer’s behavior, including one at the Erie Museum, who claims he called her “the most useless intern we have” after she refused to meet with him at his home. The other eight were at the Philadelphia Museum, where women allegedly filed complaints against Helmer beginning in 2016.

The Erie Museum says it investigated the intern’s complaint against Helmer, but found no cause for disciplinary action at the time.

Helmer’s predecessor, John Vanco, who ran the museum for close to 50 years, joined the chorus calling for the young director’s ousting, according to local news outlet Your Erie. Vanco issued a statement suggesting that the best form of resolution would be “firing Mr. Helmer immediately and then quickly determining a method for creating a new board.”

Update: This story has been updated on January 13 with information about Helmer’s ouster.

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