The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond is one of the latest institutions to come under scrutiny for its workplace culture. A petition launched in late June by current and former workers comprising the VMFA Reform Committee alleges that the museum has dismissed and mishandled complaints of racial and sexual harassment. It also raises questions about the presence of armed guards in the galleries, among other concerns.
Many of these qualms are voiced by VMFA’s gallery associates, part-time employees who engage with visitors on a regular basis. Several workers who spoke to Hyperallergic said they experienced racist incidents and sexual advances on the job by the museum’s visitors as well as other staff members and security guards, with few repercussions or systems in place to address them.
In their petition, VMFA Reform says the museum should ban concealed firearms from its premises and “develop and implement nonviolent security programs.” VMFA employs its own security staff — armed individuals known as Special Conservators of the Peace (SCOP), who are granted some of the powers of law enforcement — as internal security guards for the museum. (The practice is not uncommon in Virginia; according to a 2015 investigation, the number of SCOP officers in the state doubled over the last decade, hired to patrol “corporate campuses, neighborhoods and museums,” among others sites.)
In a June 25 employee meeting held on Zoom, the transcript of which was obtained by Hyperallergic, museum director Alexander Nyerges told staff that armed security serves as a “deterrent.”
“We have a responsibility, to our community, to our staff, to our volunteers, to our visitors, to protect them the best way possible,” he said in the meeting. “[…] They’re a deterrent, because the bad guys see that this isn’t an easy place to create mayhem. So we do it for everybody’s safety and security, it’s effective and I hope it continues to be a hundred percent effective for the future.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s inquiries about the museum’s employment of armed security, Nyerges said in a statement, “As a Commonwealth of Virginia state agency, we have relationships with Virginia State Police and Richmond Police Department. And as a state agency, open and concealed weapons are banned. VMFA employs officers (SCOP Officers) on both full- and part-time basis to protect visitors, staff, and artwork. VMFA did not participate in active engagement alongside police forces during the Richmond Black Lives Matter protests.”
During the Zoom call, Nyerges told employees that the museum only allows firearms on premises if they are carried by “a member of a police jurisdiction.”
VMFA Reform also asks that the institution “denounce all expressions of violent white supremacy,” including the neo-Confederate group Virginia Flaggers, which often flies the Confederate banner on the lawn immediately outside the museum. The group also refers to “unacknowledged investigations of employee ties with white supremacist organizations,” evoking the museum’s employment of former security staff member Dan Morley, a recruiter for the Identity Evropa hate group.
“When it was discovered you had a fat-phobic WHITE NATIONALIST in your security department, watching your cameras and tracking the movements of all of your Black employees, and you did nothing and continued to allow him to work amongst the rest of the staff, where was your support?” one former employee commented on a VMFA Instagram post expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The museum told Hyperallergic that VMFA is not associated with the Virginia Flaggers and “does not allow them on their property.” It adds that when it “had become aware of employees associated with white supremacist groups, we conducted administrative reviews, resulting in resignations.”
The reform committee claims that cases of “racism, sexual harassment, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism from both staff and visitors,” especially those brought up by BIPOC employees, are “frequently dismissed and insufficiently resolved” by the museum.
“I have been a witness to structural issues that have been going on for a long time. I would experience micro-aggressions, like my boss telling me my hair looks crazy, that other workers didn’t face,” Aaron Brown, a Black former gallery associate, said in an interview with Hyperallergic.
While working at the museum during its Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa exhibit, Brown says, “Visitors would approach me and tell me I looked like I was part of the show.”
VMFA told Hyperallergic that it “has asked visitors to leave when this abusive behavior is brought to our attention.” In his experiences, Brown says, the museum did not escort out the offending visitors.
Along with other workers, Brown filed a racial harassment complaint with Human Resources, but he says the representative’s response was insufficient. “They basically told us, ‘you don’t have to take that, you can walk away and tell your boss,’” Brown says. “That’s what we did, but what then? HR uses solidarity to quell the situation, but nothing changes.”
Former gallery associate Kate Adams, who was also laid off in June, describes experiencing “constant” sexual harassment at VMFA. Adams says she commonly worked evening events like weddings or parties where she dealt with drunken visitors who made inappropriate comments and advances, but many of the transgressions involved SCOP officers.
Adams recounts one incident where a museum SCOP officer she had never interacted with found and messaged her repeatedly on Facebook, first saying that he “liked her pictures” and later asking her to “come over his house to help decorate,” despite a lack of response from Adams.
“When I first e-mailed HR, they said that ‘this was more of a Facebook concern than a workplace concern,’” she told Hyperallergic. Eventually, HR agreed to stop scheduling them together and said they would give the officer a verbal warning.
“But after a month, they started scheduling us together again,” Adams says. “They didn’t even warn me. It was very anxiety-inducing.”
In his statement to Hyperallergic, Nyerges said that the museum has “long-established policies and practices against discrimination and harassment,” including “preventative measures against harassment by visitors” and “new training sessions for staff to address these concerns.”
“All complaints that are brought to Human Resources are immediately addressed with an administrative review. Employees have been fired for harassment and discrimination,” VMFA said.
But accounts such as Adams’ and Brown’s echo the gripes expressed in VMFA Reform’s petition, which criticizes the museum’s response to workers’ complaints.
“Once I questioned why my supervisor treated my male coworker differently, because I was getting assignments or jobs that they weren’t,” said another former worker, who preferred to remain anonymous. “When I brought it up, he laughed in my face in front of other people and publicly humiliated me, and when I complained to my supervisor’s manager, they told me, ‘that’s just how your supervisor is, he’s older, don’t worry.’”
“After a certain point you stop asking for help from people who won’t help you,” they added.
VMFA Reform believes the museum’s complicity toward offenders contrasts with a lack of frameworks in place to protect its most vulnerable employees. Thirty-two gallery associates were cut in June due to the “limited visitor capacity” brought on by the pandemic. Though VMFA released a safety plan ahead of its reopening on July 3, some remaining associates have expressed concern about the risks of contracting the virus, as they do not receive the health benefits of their full-time peers.
Brown, who was among those laid off in June, says that when he asked about hazard pay while he was still employed, the museum did not offer an answer. Among the group’s demands, the reform committee has asked for a minimum pay of $17 per hour for those working during the pandemic. VMFA told Hyperallergic that the museum has converted 57 part-time positions to full-time positions in the last five years and has “plans to raise the entry level pay of all hourly-wage employees to $15 per hour and then make commensurate adjustments to all positions to avoid wage compression.”
“VMFA has been working on these issues for several years, and while much has been accomplished, we certainly understand more remains to be done,” Nyerges said in his statement, noting that 50 percent of the museum’s executive leadership and 44 percent of its managers and directors are people of color, and that the board of trustees elected its first African American president two years ago. “In our current five-year strategic plan, we have included initiatives to further diversify our staff, attract a more diverse visitor base, and increase our African American art collections.”
According to the reform committee, the museum has not yet provided a reply to their petition, initially requested by June 26.