Since the #MeToo movement began, many in the museum sector have wondered when members of our own community would be called to account. In this episode, the Punks are joined by Robin Pogrebin, Zachary Small and Anne-Marie Quigg to explore a major #MuseumMeToo moment and ask how bullying and harassment shape workplace culture.
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Robin Pogrebin is a reporter on the Culture Desk of The New York Times, where she covers cultural institutions, the art world, architecture and other topics. She is also the author, with Kate Kelly of the book, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation,” published in September 2019.
Zachary Small is a reporter who covers stories about art, money, and politics. They write for publications like The New York Times, The Financial Times, and The Nation Magazine. They’ve previously held positions as investigations editor at The Art Newspaper and senior writer at the art blog Hyperallergic.
Dr Anne-Marie Quigg is a Director of Jackson Quigg Associates Ltd., a U.K. based company which provides freelance writing and editing services. She gained her PhD from City University, London, studying workplace bullying in the arts. During her career she has worked as an actor, a regional and community arts officer and a theatre and arts centre administrator and director. She has also been a committee member, trustee and chair of, and an adviser to, a number of community and arts organisations throughout the UK. Anne-Marie is the author of Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power and editor of The Handbook of Dealing with Workplace Bullying.
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Suse Anderson: G’day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson.
Ed Rodley: And I’m Ed Rodley, and together we’ll be digging into another important issue driving conversation and practice in the field, bullying, harassment, and the museum sector’s response to the “Me Too” movement.
Suse: Since October 2017 when the Me Too hashtag and campaign appeared online following allegations of sexual abuse and rape against film producer Harvey Weinstein, there have been quiet conversations around the museum sector wondering when members of our own sector and our own communities would be called to account.
While there have been art world revelations and quieter stories that made local waves, in January this year a bigger story broke through when Robin Pogrebin and Zachary Small published a piece in the New York Times titled He Left a Museum After Women Complained, His Next Job Was Bigger. Which detailed complaints and accusations of bullying and sexual harassment, related to Joshua Helmer, the former assistant director for interpretation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Who then went on to become one of America’s youngest museum directors at the Erie Art Museum.
Ed: The story broke in January and has prompted several waves of action of various kinds at both Erie and the PMA. Helmer himself was forced to resign from the Erie Art Museum on January 12th, but, of course, the ramifications haven’t stopped there. Timothy Rub, the CEO and director of the PMA has apologized to staff. Philadelphia mayor, Jim Kenney, has called for the PMA to “strengthen” its policies regarding sexual harassment.
Two state senators from Pennsylvania have called for greater accountability in the case of suspected sexual misconduct. The PMA has also announced staff plans to create an anonymous reporting system for sexual harassment and discrimination complaints to be paired with museum-wide training.
Suse: Hundreds of current and former staff members of the PMA also signed a statement in solidarity with the women who came forward, stating, “We acknowledge that this is not an isolated incident unique to one institution, but endemic in the field. Structural change is required to ensure that abusers aren’t enabled, employees feel safe reporting abuse, and no one fears retaliation for coming forward. Museums can and should do better.”
Ed: Today we’re going to talk about bullying and harassment in the sector, first, with Robin Pogrebin and Zachary Small who first broke the Joshua Helmer story, and then with Anne-Marie Quigg, a researcher whose work has focused on bullying in the arts for almost 20 years. A small word of warning, these conversations will include descriptions of bullying and harassment that might be upsetting for some listeners, so be advised.
Suse: Robin Pogrebin is a reporter on the culture desk of the New York Times, where she covers cultural institutions, the art world, architecture, and other topics. She is also the author, with Kate Kelly, of the book The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, published in September 2019.
Ed: Zachary Small is a reporter who covers stories about art, money, and politics. They write for publications like the New York Times, the Financial Times and The Nation Magazine. They’ve previously held positions as investigations editor at The Art Newspaper, and senior writer at the art blog, Hyperallergic. Robin and Zachary, thank you both for being here today. Before we launch into #MuseumMeToo, I was hoping you might tell us each a little bit about how you started in journalism and why writing about culture in particular has become your specific beat. Maybe, Robin, you could start us off.
Robin Pogrebin: I’ve actually been at the New York Times for 25 years. May will be my 25th anniversary. I had covered initially city news for the paper, and then I covered the media industry for the business section. I came to culture about 20 years ago, where my beat has evolved from theater, to architecture, to cultural institutions generally, as well as the art world. It also includes museums, galleries, auction houses and the art business.
Zachary Small: As for me, as a journalist, I’m art world born and bred. Like many young journalists, I started out as an art critic about five years ago and realized that as much as I like making an argument, I like chasing facts a bit more. Turned to this investigative style of reporting on art institutions, and working conditions in the art world as well as museum accountability.
Ed: Cool. It’s always good to hear the way that people get from one place to where they wind up.
Suse: That’s a great focus. I love hearing someone following museum accountability as part of what they’re looking at. On January 10, 2020, you jointly published a piece in the New York Times titled “He Left a Museum After Women Complained, His Next Job Was Bigger.” Can you tell us how you first heard about this story and what your research revealed over the course of investigating it? I’m not sure who first encountered it, so whichever one of you encountered this first, maybe kick us off.
Zachary: Sure. I can answer that. I actually got an anonymous tip for this story after publishing a long exposé into the labor conditions and health and safety conditions for art handlers in the industry. Just popped up in my email a couple weeks later, and I followed up with a source at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who had previously worked there, who said, “This is a big story. Keep going.” We went from there, and I was lucky enough to eventually get Robin in on the fun. We went forward with it from there.
Suse: That’s great. Robin, can you unpack a little bit then the process of how you research something like this? This is such a big story. It seems like it must have been several months work.
Robin: This kind of a story is difficult and as you’re probably aware, the New York Times has done several “Me Too” stories ever since the Weinstein allegations broke. In the course of doing them, it’s important to us to as these cases come to the fore, there is this danger that the public gets numb to these stories. They have to rise to the level of importance, not just because the person involved is someone of prominence, which in this case Joshua Helmer was not, but because major institutions are involved, which was the case with the Philadelphia Museum, given that that’s where he began.
We felt as if this was a cautionary tale that had resonance not only across the entire museum field but across every field in terms of an abuse of power, allegedly, and also a critical mass of alleged victims that we felt this one was worth pursuing. There definitely is a long process of earning the trust of those who have stories to tell, as well as the people they told, and then fact-checking their stories and making sure that everything is airtight and bulletproof, as we put it. Because these are very serious allegations and we definitely want to make sure that we’ve nailed them down to the best of our capacity before putting them in the paper.
We understand that we have a responsibility not only to the victims but to the accused to make sure that we’ve done our homework. Because it has a lot of weight when this kind of report gets published in the New York Times.
Suse: Speaking of weight, there was so much action that followed from this really quickly. There have been several developments, in fact, since the case broke. Can you run through then some of the big ones and their significance? Zachary, maybe you can speak to that.
Zachary: Sure. Probably the biggest development after we published the story, three days after it was printed Joshua Helmer was released of his duties at the Erie Art Museum. He no longer works there. The board at the Erie Art Museum has also released short-term, middle-term, and long-term plans for growth and moving forward. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there’s been still more rumblings. I think that the story has really touched a nerve with a lot of staff there in terms of speaking with management and being able to voice concerns historically.
There was an online spreadsheet basically of people who had worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and people who currently work there, saying that they support the women in the article, and currently, that has about over 400 signatures. To just give you a sense of scope, the Philadelphia Museum of Art employs about 550 people currently.
Robin: As well as the Philadelphia mayor called for more stringent anti-harassment policies at the museum. Even on a city level there’s been acknowledgment that this needs redress.
Ed: It’s amazing how quick things can change when this for people in Philadelphia must have been going on for an enormously long time and that sense of something just being inevitable and a part of the landscape until suddenly it’s not is one of, I think, the most hopeful things about the whole story.
For the last few years many people in the sector and probably most other sectors and anywhere there’s money and power involved have expected that there would also be their “Me Too” moment, and I’m sure you’ve probably heard more stories than you want to about this in your professional lives. If you had to pinpoint one reason why this one broke where other ones that are probably out there have stayed below the surface, what is the thing that made this one rise up to the surface as it were?
Robin: Well, one of the things that I would say if I can speak to that, is having done several of these “Me Too” stories, in particular the ones involving Richard Meier the architect, and Peter Martins the head of New York City Ballet, and Chuck Close the artist, is when there’s just one woman leads to another woman, leads to another woman. When there is a real pattern of predation, it really feels like a responsibility we have to bring these allegations to light, and not just in terms of the bad actors, which is obviously important, but also because of the institutions that somehow whether directly or indirectly sanctioned this behavior, allowed it to continue.
You do see this pattern, when you look more closely at these cases, of just the kind of apparatus around these people that looked the other way, or tried to explain this behavior away, or the power relations complicated the reporting of this misconduct. It really becomes important to call out these examples, because there is such a ripple effect within an entire industry. Although we’ve had “Me Too” stories in the corporate sphere and to some extent in other cultural realms, we hadn’t really looked at it at museums, particularly large encyclopedic museums like Philadelphia.
There are, when you speak to these women, I think, some real underlying issues around a patriarchal culture that lends itself to this kind of misconduct. I think all of that is now under review because of one case like this. They can try to begin to understand how something like this could happen and be allowed to continue for as long as it did.
Suse: Robin, your recently published book, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, you investigated the assault accusations against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It seems like there must be similarities in all of these situations, in all of these cases regardless of field. It sounds like you were just speaking to some peculiarities within the museum sector around the patriarchal nature of the sector. What else stands out as then different in the museum sector from other sectors where you’ve investigated these kinds of situations?
Robin: What stands out and stood out in talking to a number of these alleged victims in the case of the Joshua Helmer allegations was that the hierarchy of museums is such that those who run it tend to be men, and those who are working in the trenches, the rank and file tend to be women. The entry-level positions, the internships, they’re often female-dominated. It is kind of fertile ground for this kind of behavior to occur.
There’s also arguably a lack of sensitivity at the top to these issues, because men may have experienced it less, and therefore just be less aware and acutely sensitive to the fact that this kind of conduct can occur. I think it’s a wake-up call, and I think what you also see is the voices of these women now being heard and taken more seriously than they had been perhaps in the past.
You also see the problem of these nondisclosure agreements which while they may protect the alleged victims and their privacy, they also protect the institutions, and so there is this cloak of secrecy that allows this kind of behavior to be perpetuated. In the case of Joshua Helmer, he went on to become the director of the Erie Art Museum. There was not only no comeuppance, but actually he rose through the ranks because there was this cloak of silence around his behavior.
I think all of that now really needs to be considered. Unfortunately, we just don’t have a clear roadmap forward for how things will be changing in the future, but at least I think there’s a greater awareness that this kind of thing goes on, and is unacceptable.
Suse: I think we’ve been having a lot of conversations in the sector about these systemic issues and the relationships between them. Zachary, I was really interested to hear that this tip first came to you following your series on the danger epidemic in art handling which you had written for Hyperallergic. What links do you then see between these different facets of the sector? There’s labor issues. There’s issues related to harassment and bullying. You must also have some insight into different aspects of this.
Zachary: For me the parallels between those two stories, it really comes back to transparency and accountability. I think for the most part when you’re talking to art workers, whether they’re at a museum or a gallery or another institution, the culture is such where they’re made to feel like they should be thankful for any job, whether or not it pays minimum wage, whether or not they’re getting overtime. In the case of the art handlers, many of them weren’t. In this case, whether or not they’re heard and taken seriously.
Zachary: For a lot of these workers and in the art world, in general, I know that a lot of the sources I speak to on a daily basis are scared about losing their jobs if they are speaking to a reporter, or they have been intimidated by an employer not to speak out. That really does contribute to this culture of silence, this patrimony that you see in museums that keeps important information locked up.
Ed: It’s amazing to me that one of the great tools of the current era is the spreadsheet. Who saw that coming? Time and again we see people finding ways to speak out when they feel like they can’t do it normally. Robin, do you have something you want to add?
Robin: Yeah. I would just add that, to Zach’s point, having covered, for example, the protests at the Whitney Museum, for example, about a member of the board there whose company manufactures teargas that was allegedly used at the border, you suddenly saw just there’s a new level of empowerment for those who are lowest on the totem pole. I think that is resonant in terms of, let’s say, the labor issues and a lot more organizing of unions in museums, and it is in terms of speaking out as they did at The Whitney.
Ed: Now is suddenly the time that people just aren’t putting up with things that in years past it seems like they would have put up with. Particularly in recent weeks now, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Erie Museum is one example, but we have more to choose from if you want to look at major changes in the way that stories get responded to. I’m thinking of The National Archives, which put up a photograph of the 2017 Women’s March where they had blurred out any of the signs in a news photograph that were, they felt, critical of the president or described female genitalia or any other things that someone at the archives decided was not a good idea to post.
Then it was only someone from the Washington Post coming in and seeing it and saying, “Hey, look at what these guys have done at The National Archives.” That very quickly translated into both some amount of public shaming, but also action. This capacity that journalism has to still shift public sentiment and prompt quick action, particularly I think is appealing to many in the sector where museums by nature are kind of slow moving and conservative.
Do you have any other thoughts on why it takes this kind of external visibility to make significant change? Especially now with the internet, where these things could happen, like things like the art museum transparency salary spreadsheet was completely self-generated and sprang out of nowhere, it seems like, and became a major force in no time. There is still something about talking to a reporter about a thing that needs to be made public.
Zachary: I think that there are two different things at play. There’s many different things, but two major things at play. The first is, listen, we’re in an increasingly visual society that’s looking at images and image-makers for direction. Of course, museums are seen as these great gatekeepers of that information. For the past hundred decades or so have also styled themselves as unbiased presenters of that information and of media.
When that veneer starts to crack a little bit in the case of this “Me Too” article, or in the case of Warren Kanders at The Whitney Museum and the political insinuations, or different dramas in the back, behind the scenes start to come public, that becomes a big issue. I think that another part of this, too, is, of course, and we hear this from experts in the field and from arts workers as well is it’s a product of our times right now.
Obviously, Donald Trump is in the White House and I think a lot of art workers especially in the case of The Whitney Museum were reacting to policies at the border when they decided to mount nine weeks of protests at The Whitney Museum. Because, of course, Warren Kanders’ teargas was seen at the border as well as many other protests, riots, and enforcement areas around the world.
Ed: I’m going to give you both a chance to plug yourselves. If asked the question, should museum professionals seek to work with journalists when trying to deal with these kinds of internal challenges, or are there also other mechanisms that you have come across where people have been able to effect this kind of change as well? Is talking to a reporter the only way forward, do you think?
Zachary: I can speak for myself and just say my email is in my Twitter bio, and you can reach out to me whenever you want. I think that when something, and this is something Robin and I have talked about before when something gets to our desk it’s usually pretty bad, and it usually means that whoever is coming with a story to us has in good faith tried every other means possible to either get their story told or have something fixed internally before going public.
I would say to people that do have stories and that want to tell them, if that’s an important story to you then if you pick the right journalist, that journalist can help give voice to the voiceless.
Ed: Great. Robin, do you want to add anything to that?
Robin: I would just say, yes, that in a perfect world, going to human resources or to your immediate supervisors or higher in management would be an avenue forward. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, too often those people are co-opted by the organization itself and are not really a path towards redress. I would say that journalists, fortunately, have been able to bring these stories to light and effect change. Yes, we’ll keep listening and keep trying to get those stories out there to the extent that they can make an impact.
Suse: That’s lovely.
Suse: One question before we let you go, you’ve both been following this kind of work. You’ve been following, whether it’s the “Me Too” movement in various sectors, whether it’s labor issues in the museum world for several years. Robin, earlier in this conversation you said you didn’t know what the way forward after this might be. Are there ripple effects that you’ve seen in other sectors from “Me Too”? Are there other places we in the museum sector should be looking to learn in order to continue to both drive this conversation forward, but also bring positive action from this point forward?
Ed: One thing we’re particularly interested in is finding places outside of the sector for people to look because museums can be a very inwardly focused profession. Knowing what’s going on in the rest of the world is super-important.
Robin: I think that is a really important question. The one way that I really see some progress is the extent to which institutions are just much more aware of the importance of diversity, not just for the optics of it, but because the more diverse your staff, your boards, what you have on the wall in the case of museums, or what you have on your stages in terms of performing arts organizations, the more people that are represented, then the more there our different voices get heard. You start to break up the patterns that have been so entrenched for so long, in terms of a white patriarchal society, which for better or worse is still very much the reality in most fields.
I think there is some effort. Whether or not it’s just because people have been forced into it or not, there is some recognition happening that you really need to have more kinds of people represented in your organizations in order for this kind of behavior to just no longer be permitted. There’ll be more people who call it out while it’s happening, so it doesn’t go unchecked.
Suse: Beautiful. Zachary.
Zachary: I would agree with Robin, and I would add that one part of this is about having diversity in your company, and then the other part is about educating your employees. That’s something that definitely lacks in the museum world in terms of sexual harassment and other mismanagement issues that we see commonly reported. I think if you look outside of this sector, and ironically if you’re looking at the film industry or the theater industry which have surely had their own fair share of “Me Too” stories, there has been a real effort to hire intimacy coordinators and people that are really specifically tasked with educating actors in their field about how to interact with their castmates.
That’s something that we might not necessarily need in every corporate office, but surely trying to make strides in educating your employees about what is and is not appropriate we could see replicated.
Robin: I would just add to that if I could, that I think that there is this danger of when you have something like the Weinstein, if that’s the worst-case scenario then other examples of sexual misconduct pale in comparison, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also egregious. When you have verbal abuse, that can be just as damaging to someone’s career and sense of self. I think it’s really important to educate people around that.
Suse: That’s fantastic.
Ed: Thank you.
Suse: Now, both of you, I know, Zachary, you mentioned that if people did want to send you a tip that your email was in your Twitter bio. Can you both give us the best way for people to get in contact with you if they do want to follow your work, find out more, or send you something to follow up on?
Zachary: Sure. Like I said, it’s in my Twitter bio, but you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow me on Twitter, or any social media where my handle is ZacharyHSmall. That’s it.
Suse: Brilliant. Robin.
Robin: For me it would be RPogrebin is my handle, and on my email is email@example.com, and I welcome any and all tips. Although we may not pursue all of them, I’m always glad to hear them.
Suse: That’s great.
Suse: I almost wish you get no tips, because that would mean there were no problems. Unfortunately, I don’t think that that’s quite the situation we’re in right now.
Ed: We can hope. Thank you both …
Suse: Thank you both.
Ed: … so much for taking the time.
Robin: Thanks for having us.
Zachary: Thank you.
Ed: Doctor Anne-Marie Quigg is a director of Jackson Quigg Associates Limited, a UK-based company which provides freelance writing and editing services. She gained her PhD from City University London, studying workplace bullying in the arts. During her career, she’s worked as an actor, a regional and community arts officer, and a theater and arts center administrator and director. She has also been a committee member, trustee and chair of, and an advisor to a number of community and arts organizations throughout the UK. Anne-Marie is the author of Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation, and Abuse of Power, and editor of The Handbook of Dealing with Workplace Bullying. Welcome, Anne-Marie.
Anne-Marie Quigg: Thank you so much.
Ed: You’ve been researching bullying, harassment, and abuse of power in the arts for more than 20 years. Before we dive into the topic of bullying and harassment more broadly though, we’re always interested in people’s career journeys and the strange paths they take. Could you tell us a little bit about what started your interest and research into this area?
Anne-Marie: Yes, of course, Ed. Thank you. I suppose like most people who are interested in this topic, there was a combination of personal experience on my part. At a point in my career where I was a consultant and visiting a lot of different arts organizations, I began to notice the way that behaviors were changing or seemed to have changed since my own early days.
That led me to think, “Well, I really need to know more about this.” I thought I would just go back to university quite late in life, and embark on some research to find out more about whether this was just one-off behavior in certain organizations or whether there was a pattern.
Suse: Anne-Marie, that’s really interesting, the idea that this might be a pattern. Before we get into patterns of bullying, I think it can be easy to imagine that certain kinds of bullying behaviors are pretty similar from one another, but is all bullying the same? Are there different kinds of bullying behaviors that people might encounter in the workplace?
Anne-Marie: No. All bullying isn’t the same. It would be easy if that was the case. It’s a bit like being able to recognize a bully by maybe what they look like or where they’re from or the color of their eyes. It’s just not possible. Some bullying behavior I have found is a lot more sinister than others. In some cases, it becomes institutionalized. You can imagine how in certain organizations, for example, prisons or the armed forces, there can become a culture of bullying that persists despite all efforts to remove it.
Then there are isolated cases where one individual in an organization becomes a kind of a serial bully, and they move from one target to the next until such time as it either catches up with them or they get promoted, which is not as unusual as you might think. The simple answer is there are different types of bullying. Some people bully alone and some people bully in pairs or as part of a team almost. It’s a very difficult area.
Suse: Just listening to you talk about it reminds me of my own experiences of bullying, and I’m feeling all kinds of almost tension in my back just remembering experiences that I’ve had in these kinds of situations.
Ed: I was having the same feeling.
Suse: It’s so visceral just hearing about how these things play out. Our episode, as you know, this month, was inspired by a conversation about the “Me Too” movement within museums and around sexual harassment. How does harassment and sexual harassment play into other kinds of bullying behaviors?
Anne-Marie: Well, it’s interesting. First of all, I’m sorry you’ve had a bad experience. During my research, I was very conscious that some of the people who volunteered to be interviewed would almost relive some of the stress and tension that their personal experiences had caused them. I understand that completely. The thing about bullying in a way is that it’s much like other sorts of abuse. Researchers have linked workplace bullying with, in some cases domestic abuse, child bullying.
There’s a kind of a difficult relationship between those kinds of behaviors, because a person who’s bullied in childhood may very well grow up to be a bully themselves in the workplace, or they may be a target in childhood and find they’re a target as an adult. I think that what makes it so complex and so very difficult to fathom.
Ed: Anne-Marie, have you noticed any difference since the “Me Too” movement has started around the dynamics of workplace bullying, and the conversations that people are having?
Anne-Marie: Yes, I have. That in itself is very encouraging. Sometimes bullying and sexual harassment go hand-in-hand. One is the flip side of the other if you like. What I’ve noticed is that there’s much more awareness in workplaces today than there used to be, and younger people today are much less tolerant of what they perceive as sexual harassment than might have been the case more than 20 years ago.
Ed: Well, that’s a hopeful thing for 2020. Anne-Marie, can you talk a little bit about what you’ve discovered about how bullying and harassment impact a work environment? What is it like to work somewhere where there is an active bullying situation going on?
Anne-Marie: It’s often described by people who I’ve interviewed and people who have reported their own experiences to me that it’s a toxic work environment. I’m not overemphasizing that. I think even people who are not targeted themselves but who witness bullying, the bullying of others, can begin to feel the same way as the target does. Can begin to dread going to work in the morning. Can develop all sorts of physical and psychological symptoms of stress. The whole work environment can become just a place where no one wants to be as long as the bully’s in it.
Suse: I’ve noticed you’ve used the term accessories to bullying in your book. I imagine that’s partly what you’re talking about. Can you explain that term, and what someone should do if they do witness or become aware of bullying and harassment within their institution?
Anne-Marie: Yes, of course. There are a lot of terms used to talk about people who understand what’s going on, bystanders, witnesses, et cetera. Accessories to me is another level because that is someone who perhaps has the capacity or the authority, if you like, to intervene and stop the bullying happening but does nothing. It can be unfortunate, for instance, if you witness bullying of a colleague and feel that you’re powerless to do anything, and there are cases where that is absolutely true. If you know you could do something more helpful and you choose not to do it, then you are an accessory to the bullying itself.
Ed: I think that’s important to note that there are many more people involved than just the people who are bullying or being bullied and that idea of stopping the tide, as it were, is an important one for everybody to think about.
Anne-Marie: I think also that an organization can help itself to try and prevent bullying in the first place if it puts in place the right kind of policies, and has the right kind of guidelines for action. When I write about what to do, I often have to frame it in terms of if you’re, say, a board member at the top of an organization, or you’re a chief executive, or you’re a senior manager but under other managers that it depends on your role in that organization how much power and authority you might have.
In order for an organization to try and make it clear that bullying won’t be tolerated, they have to state that in their policies and guidelines, make sure everyone knows it, and implement the solutions that they arrive at if it occurs when they’re there.
Ed: That’s great. I think getting at that idea of what can organizations do structurally is super-important. One question I have for you Anne-Marie is do you think that bullying and harassment manifest similarly across all sectors, or are there specific conditions about the arts and cultural sectors that make them or that make workplace bullying and harassment different in these kinds of organizations than in, say, the corporate world or elsewhere?
Anne-Marie: Yes, I think, and I mentioned vocation in the subtitle of my first book. People in the arts, creative people are very, very committed to what they do. Whether they’re an actor, or technician, or a writer, or a museum curator, they love what they do. Very few of us go into the arts to make money, I can tell you that. This gives an extra sensitivity, I think, when behavior is abusive. I think it makes people feel more overwhelmed than if they’re just, for example, in a 9:00 to 5:00 job that is just their way of being able to feed themselves and their families. I think there is a difference.
For instance, you might be interested to know that another area that suffers a lot of bullying are the carrying professions, hospitals, junior doctors, nurses. There’s been quite a lot of research in that area in the UK, and I pretty much imagine it must be the same elsewhere.
Suse: It’s an interesting point. I also wonder, something I’ve been thinking about a lot thinking through this topic is the size of different sectors. In the museum sector, I come from a regional town in Australia, and there really were not very many jobs for people who wanted to work in that sector. It seems like it’s harder to be able to leave, that there’s less mobility without truly taking a leap. Do you think that also plays a factor, that it’s not merely about this vocational, this passion for a job, but also the kinds of relationships that drive the sector?
Anne-Marie: Yes. I’m sure that must be the case. I know arts organizations come in different shapes and sizes, of course. Some are very large. Some are tiny, virtually maybe half a dozen people. That does mean that mobility can be restricted. What I’ve also found is that for people working in the arts and cultural organizations, if they are freelance, so they’re working short-term contracts, then they are more likely to put up with bullying, because they make a decision, “This is going to happen for six months and then I’m not going to be here anymore, and I’ll never work for this director or organization again.”
I’ve found that freelancers tend to try and stick it out rather than those in a full-time position. Because those in a full-time position can’t see any way forward, very often.
Suse: That makes a lot of sense. I really take to heart what you were saying before, that part of preventing this and how we make a healthier sector is that organizations need to have policies and procedures in place to try and make a healthier workplace right upfront. These situations do seem to come down, often, to individuals or at least individuals become players, at least at the start. Are there signs that an employer can be on the look out for to recognize a potential bullying situation, to help protect their staff and make sure that the work environment is a positive one?
Anne-Marie: Well, I think training plays a big part here, because I have worked for Equity here in the UK, which is the actors’ union. They, first of all, produced a policy. Now they’ve got a part-time employee dealing with cases of bullying among their members. When I work with them and train them, they get everybody involved, so it’s not just fellow actors. It might be anyone who’s a member, anyone who manages members. That means that their policy is going to be implemented and understood across the board. It shouldn’t fall to just one manager to sort out a situation.
If they’re able to do so without having to refer it upwards, then obviously that’s a bonus all round. Very often bullies when accused will make counterclaims. That means they might go to a senior manager and accuse the person they’ve been targeting of bullying them. That’s when it all gets very complicated and very difficult to sort out.
Ed: To follow up on that a little bit, Anne-Marie, do you have any particular advice for someone if they are currently being bullied by a colleague or a superior in their museum right now? What would be the steps that you would recommend someone take?
Anne-Marie: Well, I know I keep saying this is difficult, but it is. This is the reason why. Sometimes people who feel they’re being bullied, make an approach to the person they believe is responsible, and try and discuss it with them. Once or twice I gather it has worked, but for the most part, it isn’t really a solution. Once accused, the bully will go into denial. The next difficulty is if you are being bullied by your line manager, then the only place you can go is over their head, and that might make it difficult for the person at the top of the organization that you approach because they might have appointed your line manager in the first place.
In a sense, this is why if you look at some of the cases in museums, particularly, of sexual harassment, when a CEO is responsible, the person at the top of the tree as it were, then the board of that organization can be very loath to take any action at all. Very often the person who makes the complaint is moved on, or in one case I know, from not very long ago, is sacked.
Ed: If it’s not your CEO, let’s say, what would be the first step that you would recommend to somebody?
Anne-Marie: Well, you have to all, sorry, you have to, first of all, keep a dossier. That’s going to sound strange, but very often bullying is a series of quite small occurrences, and what I describe as the Jekyll and Hyde effect comes into play here. Somebody could be really nice to you one day, helpful, making suggestions that are positive, and in a slightly different situation they suddenly turn on you and accuse you of incompetence, by which I mean falsely accuse you of incompetence. It’s that kind of change of attitude.
That person can be very difficult to get around, and very difficult to report. Because bullies are often very charming to the people who hold the power in an organization, and not so charming to the person they’re targeting. First of all, I would say collect the evidence. Better so if you have witnesses to what’s going on between you and the perpetrator. When you feel you have a body of evidence that is sufficient, you should consider where the best approach would be made. Sometimes that is a senior manager or another manager, and sometimes it is the board of directors or equivalent. It’s not clear cut.
Most people end up, have to say, leaving their organization, because they can’t find a resolution that will give them back their sanity, as they’ve often said to me.
Ed: That’s a terrible situation to be in.
Anne-Marie: I should also say, where there’s trades union involvement, generally the success rate at least in the UK is much better. Because if you have someone outside of your organization who’s supporting you and to whom you can deliver the evidence, they are empowered to come and talk to management and try to seek a solution to the issue.
Suse: I think that that’s one of the challenges, I mean just listening to you talk, is that there aren’t easy solutions and that there aren’t clearcut ways forward. Yet, if we’re thinking about in the museum sector how we make a healthier sector and how we prevent situations like this from happening, then we do have to look to do we work with outside organizations. How do we make sure that individuals are not bearing the brunt of what’s happening? Are there any success stories? Before we leave you, have you seen success stories where an environment that was a toxic work environment has actually been able to be brought around and made healthier, and what contributed to that?
Anne-Marie: Well, there is one example I can think of. One of the very large theaters here, theater houses I should say, with buildings in London as well as elsewhere, they had a problem backstage. They had an older man who’d been with them for a long time, who was known to bully the younger technicians. I think there were several complaints made against him. He was given a period of leave of absence. Management found it very hard to just get rid of him, because he’d been with them for such a long time. Yet, their team performed so brilliantly when he was not at work that they realized they had to find some kind of permanent solution.
I came across this case because the director of the department came to one of my lectures, which I was surprised about, sat among the students, and then told me what was going on. He went to his union, but in this case, of course, the union represented both the person accused of bullying and the young people who said they were targets of bullying. It was in the end with the help of the union and getting them all together, both organizations, both the bully and the targets were reconciled.
The only thing is that as it was quite close to the bully’s retirement age, he decided to take early retirement. The technical director was very pleased about this but rather annoyed that he was given a very nice financial gift. Still, they did sort the situation out and the team went back to being one of the best there is.
Suse: Wow. It’s a tough and complex situation. Anne-Marie, if people want to find out more about your work, if they want to read your book or keep in contact with the kind of research you’ve been doing, what’s the best way for them to do so?
Anne-Marie: Well, email is best for me if they want to make immediate contact. I don’t hear so well, so using the telephone can be tricky. I think my email address is in the books or on our website. Ed mentioned Jackson Quigg Associates Limited. If you Google that, you’ll find us. I’m very happy to hear from anyone who wants to share an experience or ask some more questions.
Suse: Anne-Marie, that’s lovely. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Ed: Yes, thank you very much, Anne-Marie.
Anne-Marie: It’s been a pleasure, and thank you for taking an interest. I hope your listeners also find it was useful to them.
Ed: Thank you Rob and Zachary and Anne-Marie for sharing your work and perspectives with us. This is not an easy topic, but it’s an important one for us to talk about openly and not just behind closed doors.
Suse: As I mentioned briefly when we were talking to Anne-Marie, I have definitely experienced workplace bullying in a job, fortunately prior to joining museums. I was surprised by how clearly some of those feelings of anxiousness, of anxiety came back to me in this conversation. I was quite young at the time that it happened, and I don’t think I even realized exactly what was happening, including the gaslighting, the bullying, the things that brought my sense of reality into question.
The effects of bullying and harassment, sexual or otherwise, can be devastating, which is why it’s so important that as the PMA staff put it so clearly, abusers aren’t enabled, employees feel safe reporting abuse, and no one feels retaliation for coming forward. Museums can and should do better.
Ed: Let’s say that again, museums can and should do better.
Suse: Well, hopefully, these conversations are one of the ways that that is going to happen, that this won’t just be one conversation but it will be the start of museums address this upfront, openly with transparency and with policies that they actually utilize.
Ed: What a way to kick off 2020, huh? That’s a powerful episode.
Suse: Yeah. I’d love to imagine that maybe the rest of the year will be filled with lighthearted things and puppies and kittens and flowers, but I have a feeling that 2020 is going to be a pretty intense year, and that our work is not going to get any easier.
Ed: No. I agree with that. My big hope is that we’ll have more opportunities to report on things that are actually happening and changes that are happening rather than just talking about things that are issues that need to be resolved.
Suse: I think that would be a nice aim. That said, I think I said this actually in the last episode of 2019, that my personal practice has been shifting in response to these conversations, so even just having the conversations, just having the discussions and making them public and building a sense of momentum, I think, does equip people to do things differently.
Ed: I agree. It’s much better to be having these conversations. It’s a first step, but you got to take the first step before you can take the second.
Suse: Absolutely. 2020, is there anything you’re excited about or looking forward to, Ed? Rather than finishing on this somewhat grim note of work’s going to be hard. Life is a little bit tough right now.
Ed: I’m actually kind of excited to engage with it. It’s going to be hard, but I think the conversations you and I have been having have been really nourishing. I think the stuff we have lined up, super-secret things, for the future are going to be very exciting. 2020, let’s do it.
Suse: I like it. 2020, let’s do it. Let’s rock on in and have that as our minor mantra, I think, for the rest of the year.
Ed: Hell yeah. On that note, we’ve popped links to much of what we spoke about today in the show notes, which you can find at museopunks.org, along with transcripts of this and previous episodes.
Suse: Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. Of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher.