Helmer No Longer Employed at Erie Art Museum - Board Leadership Not Commenting Yet
Joshua Helmer is out as Executive Director of the Erie Art Museum. The announcement came from the Erie Art Museum Board of Directors Monday afternoon, after their second called meeting in four days.
The action comes after an article published in the New York Times Friday detailing multiple allegations of misconduct against Helmer in his previous position with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at least one allegation from an intern at the Erie Art Museum. The intern here told the New York Times she faced retaliation from Helmer after declining a text messaged invitation to his "cool back deck" for coffee.
At 3:30 p.m. Monday, the Erie Art Museum Board issued a two sentence statement saying, "Joshua Helmer is no longer employed at The Erie Art Museum. The Museum appreciates, in advance, the community's support as we move forward."
It's unclear how much weight board members gave to a change.org petition that called for the firing of Joshua Helmer. In just a few days it gathered nearly 3,000 signatures of support as well as comments on why he should be removed.
Katie DiPrinzio said she started the petition because she found the allegations of sexual harassment laid out against Helmer in the New York Times, "very troubling." Before the board announced his departure DiPrinzio told Erie News Now, she hoped the museum board was following it. "I hope that they take the petition seriously into account, I hope that they read the comments on the petition--the reasons that people signed the petition, I hope that ultimately they fire Joshua Helmer and I hope that they hold themselves accountable for their own inaction."
Josh Helmer was announced as Executive Director of the Erie Art Museum in May of 2018. During his tenure, he made decisions to sell off some stored collections he deemed not valuable to the museum. Helmer also led the museum in decisions to sell to the EDDC several museum owned properties, as part of an effort to get the Erie Art Museum out from beneath a $1.3 million debt.
DiPrinzio was unmoved by that progress, in light of the allegations. "The damage that he has done and is continuing to do far outweighs what ever financial and material benefit he’s bringing to the museum," she said.
After Erie News Now reported Helmer's departure DiPrinzio was pleased, but in a statement said she will continue to ask questions.
Thank you to the board for doing the right thing and responding to public outcry by firing Joshua Helmer. The community's concerns, however, still remain relevant and we have questions that need to be answered. Why was he hired in the first place? Why didn't the board fire him after one of the art museum's interns complained? Why did it take a New York Times article and a petition with 3,000 signatures for them to take action? Who knew about this and chose to do nothing? What are they going to do in the future to make sure that this doesn't happen again? What will they do to protect their employees, interns and volunteers from sexual misconduct and unwanted advances? These are questions that the board needs to answer and we won't stop asking until they do.
Patrick Fisher, Executive Director of Erie Arts and Culture said he is already setting a path with local partners including the Nonprofit Partnership and the Crime Victim Center to help nonprofit boards navigate these types of situations. "We know that an accusation and a criminal charge are two different things but I think at the very least an accusation deserves internal investigation by any organization," Fisher said, "so we’re going to be working with our partners to put together some framework for that to start occurring here in 2020."
Multiple sources tell Erie News Now that actions to reduce the size and makeup of the Erie Art Museum Board and change its bylaws during Helmer's tenure, may have contributed to a delay in addressing what was a brewing problem, especially after a New York Times reporter began reaching out to people in Erie for comment.
"So I think this situation in general is raising a lot of very important questions that we ask our selves when we go through governance as a nonprofit organization," Fisher said. "At the end of the day we’re here to serve the community and some nonprofits are also receiving public funding whether it be from the county or from the state--that funding is taxpayer dollars and I think it’s really important that we’re good fiscal stewards of those taxpayer dollars and that we’re creating spaces that are safe for the community, but also safe for the employees that work there."
Fisher offered this advice, "I do think it’s worth looking at making sure that any nonprofit organization is revisiting their bylaws, their harassment policies, their employee handbook and just making sure that all of that is in accordance with best practices."
President of the Erie Art Museum Board, Andona Zacks-Jordan, and board member Adam Williams did not return our calls for comment on the Helmer decision. Lucia Conti, Director of Marketing for the Erie Art Museum said, "Further comment will come as we move forward."