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Akron Art Museum Board Responds To Discrimination Allegations

Akron Art Museum [Milena Ramirez / Shutterstock.com]
The modern steel and glass exterior addition to the Akron Art Museum sits next to its redbrick original building

The Akron Art Museum board chairman responded Monday to several days of local and national media reports questioning its employment practices.

It all started with an article in the New York-based Art News, which featured charges from several former museum employees about what one observer called a "toxic workplace." Allegations included racial bias, unfair treatment of women and retribution for those who complained. These claims echo accusations detailed in a memorandum submitted to the museum board by 27 museum staff members in June 2019.

Some of the sharpest criticism took aim at the management practices of museum CEO Mark Masuoka and his former chief of staff, Jennifer Shipman. They were accused in the memo of creating and promoting “a pervasive culture of race and gender discrimination and bullying which have resulted in a dysfunctional work environment and severely unhealthy turnover rate.” Masuoka did not respond to a request for an interview. Shipman no longer works at the museum.

"We want to make certain that our staff has the resources to continue the excellence that has become their trademark while working in an environment that is inclusive and supportive," wrote board chairman Drew Engles in a letter of response. 

In an interview last week, former collections manager and exhibitions registrar Chrissy Marquardt said she had four different supervisors over the course of three years.

"I'm a registrar, I'm a Type A, I'm detail oriented," Marquardt said. "So, working in a very chaotic environment where nobody knows what's happening at any time, you never know what the truth is. It's not a pleasant experience."

The museum board retained the labor and employment law firm Kastner Westman & Wilkins to investigate the allegations.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, like many local institutions, concerns about the disease caused the Akron museum to temporarily close its doors. In a statement issued at the end of March, the museum said it would remain closed until at least June 30, estimating a total financial impact of $933,000. The closure prompted layoffs, including longtime security staffer Michael Gable, who sees the staff cuts as payback.

"I believe that it is the CEO and his administration using the global crisis to cover up their mismanagement, financial and otherwise, hoping to garner sympathy and money from the community," Gable said in an email on Saturday.  

Engles countered such claims in a letter Monday afternoon. 

"The Museum has recently been inaccurately criticized as using the layoffs secondary to the current pandemic as a form of retribution for a letter authored by a group of concerned employees nearly a year ago," Engles wrote.

The allegations led to the investigation, which Engles said allowed for "introspection of our procedures." The museum has since hired an HR manager and started anti-bias training sessions.

The letter also said that the museum has begun to hire back some recently laid off employees thanks to support from the federal CARES program.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.