Ousted Trustee Describes “Culture of Fear” at Asheville Art Museum

According to the Asheville Watchdog, vandals removed letters from the Asheville Art Museum sign to read “A HELL ART MUSEUM.” (photo courtesy Asheville Watchdog)

An Asheville Museum of Art board member and volunteer docent who spoke publicly about allegations of worker mistreatment at the museum has been ousted from her post, the Asheville Watchdog reported. Former trustee Michelle Weitzman claims her removal was a retaliatory action by the North Carolina institution’s director, Pamela Myers, following an extensive investigation by the Watchdog into accusations of verbal and emotional hostility and a “toxic” workplace at the North Carolina institution.

Weitzman was the only trustee to provide an on-the-record interview for the November 9 article, in which she attested to a “culture of fear in employees” and “horrendous” morale and attrition — observations echoed by workers interviewed by the Watchdog and by Hyperallergic.

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It’s been a week since the Watchdog’s initial report reached the public eye, and a busy week at that. At a members appreciation event at the Asheville Art Museum the night after the article came out, one event-goer, Monica Krider, reportedly asked Michelle Weitzman if Myers was present, wanting to speak to her regarding the allegations. A verbal altercation between Krider and Myers ensued, with Myers telling Krider, “You’re in my house.”

Michelle Weizman, a former trustee at the Asheville Art Museum in North Carolina (used with permission)

Weitzman said she merely helped point out Myers to the visitor, but was told by the board during her termination meeting that her behavior that evening and her speaking up on behalf of the employees had “compromised” the health of the institution and “tainted the image of the museum.”

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Weitzman said that as a board member, she felt compelled to speak up after she was privy to the complaints and concerns of museum staff.

“That’s what Board members are supposed to do,” she said. “And I felt that I was in a strong enough position. All they could do was let go of me, because I wasn’t a paid employee, I was a volunteer docent. I had no reason to say anything but the truth.”

A representative for the Asheville Art Museum declined to comment on Weitzman’s removal and workers’ allegations.

Candace Reilly, a former adult programs manager who was hired in 2013 and resigned in 2015, described her time at the museum as “abusive.”

“I mean, her intent is to disparage you and embarrass you and make you feel small, and she did a very good job at that,” Reilly told Hyperallergic, speaking about her confrontations with Myers. Reilly wrote a letter to the director citing her reasons for leaving. “Pam [Myers] pulled me into the office with the board chair and ripped into me. She made me feel like I was worthless,” Reilly said.

When she escalated the matter to the board of trustees, a board member reportedly told Reilly that “they were never going to get rid of Pam, she’s just too valuable.”

Reilly also claims that the museum expected everyone to work overtime, and that 40 overtime hours could be cashed in as five days of PTO (paid time off). She said that most people exhausted those 40 hours by March, and overtime beyond that went without increased wages. “When we counted up the time worked, including overtime hours with no additional compensation, it looked like we were making seven dollars an hour at the end of the day.”

Lindsey Grossman, the museum’s former communications manager between 2019 and 2020, said Myers had a tendency towards “berating and belittling” employees. “She had a habit of making you feel small,” Grossman told Hyperallergic.

Grossman resigned after attempting unsuccessfully to negotiate a more amenable work schedule during the pandemic, when her two children were adapting to virtual learning. She filed for unemployment to get through that time, but the museum contested that she had resigned for personal reasons, interfering with her ability to obtain financial assistance. Grossman was ordered to return over $7K in unemployment benefits that her family had already spent — she is currently fighting to have the decision reconsidered.

“I still don’t know why they would do this to me,” Grossman said.

Several former board members have corroborated employees’ allegations, and five trustees resigned from their posts this spring. David Huff, a trustee from 2020 to 2022, spoke at length in the Watchdog’s report about the social climate of the board. Though there were limited interactions between the board and museum staff, the repeated use of words like “traumatic,” “gaslighting,” and “psychologically abusive relationship” in letters from former employees clued him in that this wasn’t just a case of standard micromanagement.

“Pam does not like to be challenged,” Huff told Hyperallergic, after he and his co-trustee Darren Green began inquiring about Human Resources policies and employee welfare. He said he began to see parallels between the reactions he would get from the Board and Myers when he rose questions and what former staff would report about their experiences.

Huff claims he was omitted from the committee of board members looking into employee concerns after he and Green continuously raised the issue. “It was like a game of Whack-A-Mole,” Huff continued. “Ask questions, get punished.” Huff also pointed to Myers’s and the board’s difficulty incorporating diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion principles — a sector that rose to prominence during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. He recounted to both Hyperallergic and the Watchdog that the board’s decision to remove the only Black woman and co-chair of the equity committee, Terri Sigler, during her temporary relocation to New Jersey was the nail in the coffin for him, Sigler, and the three others who put in their letters resignation at the same time last May.

Weitzman has one hope for the Asheville Art Museum: “I want to see Pam [Myers] resign and the Board bring on a new executive director. That’s what everyone wants — at least those who aren’t in Pam’s camp. I don’t trust this board, but you can’t fire everyone. I sincerely hope they do the right thing.”

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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