Whistleblowers Spoke Up to Hold Art Institutions Accountable. Here’s What Happened to Them Afterward
Arts workers who publicized allegations of mismanagement discuss their motivations for speaking out against their employers—and what came next.
They finalized protest letters over cups of coffee and under the fluorescent lights of 24-hour diners. They teamed up with colleagues to organize unions in WhatsApp groups. And they called journalists in stairwells to raise allegations of abuse on the conviction that museums and galleries should be held accountable for hurtful practices.
In recent years, a growing number of whistleblowers have put their careers on the line to spotlight trouble within the art world. Such efforts have produced tectonic shifts inside institutions, where executives have resigned under pressure and trustees have bowed to employee demands for improved diversity, equity, and inclusion measures.
But after the open letters are published, the articles are out, and the declarations are made on social media, what happens to the people behind them? Artnet News spoke with a number of whistleblowers to find out what followed their news-making efforts and the emotional costs of going public.
Some say it strengthened their position in the art world; for others, it was a moment to bow out.
“Resigning Was Brutal”
Andrea Montiel de Shuman says the emotional weight of not speaking up is what hurt the most. After working at the Detroit Institute of Arts for nearly six years, she resigned from her role as a digital experience designer in June through a public letter wherein she detailed allegations of systemic racism at the museum. A month before she published the letter, she took a month-long mental health vacation to consider her options.
“I had worked my entire life to have that job,” she said. “As a woman of color from a family that had experienced poverty, I felt like I had finally made it. Resigning from all that was brutal.”
Montiel de Shuman said she was inspired by other women who had detailed their experiences with racism in museums, and seeing the curator Chaédria LaBouvier publicly share her experience at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was inspiring.
“Seeing her go against a big system was important,” Montiel de Shuman explained. “It made me question when I would be ready to do something like that.”
After resigning, she received broad support from colleagues but declined an invitation to speak with the Detroit Institute of Arts’ director, Salvador Salort-Pons, fearing that the conversation would take a retaliatory tone.
In the aftermath of her departure, the museum has embarked on a three-year project to reimagine its diversity policies; a spokeswoman also said that it has established a confidential hotline for employees to report matters of discrimination and retaliation.
Montiel de Shuman was prepared to stay jobless for a few months after her departure, planning to volunteer through the coronavirus pandemic with activist networks trying to hold museums like her previous employer responsible for promised reforms. In recent weeks, she has also applied for a doctorate with a research focus on institutional accountability.
The many hours of organizing have taken a toll on her mental health. “I overworked myself,” she said. “Activists experienced burnout in 2020, but this year is going to be about healing and mutual aid.”
Although she had initially feared going public with her complaints, Montiel de Shuman said that more opportunities for work have opened since publishing her resignation letter.
“There are people that care,” she said.
A few months before Montiel de Shuman published her open letter, workers at the Akron Art Museum in Ohio were finding solidarity through an effort to hold their leaders accountable for claims of sexism, racism, and bullying within their ranks.
“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 the Akron Art Museum as a security guard and building services associate, said last year when the allegations became public. “I loved the museum but not the current leadership.”
A 2019 letter from staff calling for the removal of museum director Mark Masuoka triggered the board of trustees to launch a legal investigation. Though it found the majority of the employees’ complaints to have merit, the museum’s leader remained in place. Just over six months later, as the institution went into lockdown, it laid off many of the 27 employees who wrote the letter. That included Harvey.
“I would have gone to the press sooner and put everything on the table,” he said. “We waited and were laid off before anyone could notice or react.”
When the employees went public with their experiences in the press several months later, the museum took action. Masuoka resigned last summer; the board bought him out of his contract and promised improvements to the workplace. More staff members have departed since; currently, there are no curators left at the museum. Two employees have also brought lawsuits against the institution and its former director, which are ongoing.
“Maybe it’s a Midwestern thing, but we wanted to give them a chance to do the right thing because publicly speaking out,” Harvey said. “But as a Black person working there and being told to use the boiler room for my breaks, I didn’t forget where this country views my place.”
A spokeswoman for the museum said that it is actively searching for a new chief curator and that leaders have been rolling out a transformation plan since July of last year, which includes a community advisory board and new diversity policies.
For Harvey, frustration has been the defining characteristic of his struggle to hold the Akron Art Museum accountable. He helped organize two protests over the summer against the museum with nearly 30 others.
“The situation sucked but it was nice to come together,” Harvey said, mentioning that during one of the protests, other activists from a nearby trans-rights rally joined the cause. “We bonded with others in our community because we want the same thing: equity.”
Harvey said that he is still waiting for the museum to apologize to its former employees and follow through with its promises for change.
“2021 is the year for accountability,” he added. “There have to be consequences.”
Inside the Gallery
The pressure to deliver substantive change still hangs over Pace Gallery, where reporting last year from Artnet News detailed several allegations of an abusive work environment spanning more than a decade. Following those claims, the dealership launched a legal investigation into the conduct of two executives, Douglas Baxter and Susan Dunne. The former also took a leave of absence.
For months, Joseph de Leon debated if he should speak publicly about his experience working as an assistant to Baxter through 2019 after he was laid off during pandemic cuts last summer. During his time at the gallery, he claimed he had seen the Pace president verbally berate employees using slurs and anti-semitic phrases. He said he had made an effort to address his concerns internally, spending nearly six months talking to human resource representatives and the gallery leadership before going public.
“The art world doesn’t have to be a negative place,” said de Leon. “People should be aware of what’s going on inside galleries and make their own informed decisions.”
Since speaking out, de Leon has returned to the art-world job market; in the meantime, he has also launched a small business called Italian Outpost that sells specialty gift baskets of Italian goods.
Last month, lawyers from Pace Gallery emailed to ask de Leon if he would participate in their investigation of Baxter’s conduct. He declined. “I already put everything on the record,” de Leon said, adding that he doubted the dealership’s owners would take meaningful action against two of its longest-tenured employees.
A spokeswoman for the gallery said that the investigation is ongoing. “Independent outside counsel is conducting the investigation and is soliciting the information they need according to best practices,” she said.
(Another former employee who spoke to the press said she has still not been contacted to discuss her time working under Dunne.)
In the tight-knit world of blue-chip galleries, de Leon expected some blowback for speaking up, but responses from colleagues have been overwhelmingly positive. However, he said, because many galleries have instituted a hiring freeze during the pandemic, it’s difficult to gauge if his decision to speak up will have lasting consequences on his career.
De Leon added: “If I never got a job in the art world again, at least I did the right thing.”
Strength in Numbers
Over the past year, employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art have sometimes wondered aloud if their attempts to hold management accountable for a sexual misconduct scandal would get them fired. But they found strength in numbers when discussing leadership problems at the century-old institution. Criticism from state officials and the city’s mayor ultimately led museum administrators to introduce a series of reforms. And last summer, staff voted to create one of the largest museum unions in the country.
“We are less siloed than before,” said Adam Rizzo, an educator at the museum. “There was a realization among staff that we could exert more pressure upward. I don’t think changes would have happened without public pressure.”
Like other whistleblowers, Rizzo feared the consequences of speaking out about sexual misconduct he had heard about from other employees at the museum. Ultimately, his decision to go public was motivated by a desire to support the female colleagues who were prepared to go on the record.
“Women and people of color who speak out are often called angry,” he said. “But when I speak out, I get congratulations and hugs.”
In the end, Rizzo believes that speaking up may have also saved his job. During the pandemic, the institution slashed more than 100 positions.
“In a weird way, being vocal kept me safe from being targeted by the administration,” he said. “But I have made peace with the fact that I’m probably not getting a promotion anytime soon.”
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