More than two dozen former employees of the Asheville Art Museum have signed a letter calling for the removal of the longtime executive director and an end to what they describe as a “culture of fear and toxic leadership.”
The letter, signed by 29 ex-staffers, said mistreatment of staff as reported by Asheville Watchdog requires the museum’s board to “do their duty and remove Pam Myers immediately in order to protect the current and future health and viability of the Institution.”
An online petition also went up Tuesday morning, calling on artists to support the museum staff and Myers’s removal, and “start the process of reestablishing trust and transparency with our entire community.”
Asheville Watchdog requested comment from Myers, Board Chair Paul Saenger, and past chairs, Butch Patrick and Linda Andrews. None responded by our deadline Tuesday.
A majority of the museum’s board has remained steadfast to Myers, the museum’s director since 1995, despite complaints by former employees in 2015 and again in 2021. The board twice brought in an executive coach, but staff complaints about Myers’s management style persisted.
‘I Look at Her as a Hero’
Supporters credit Myers with taking the museum from the basement of the Asheville Civic Center to the glistening anchor of downtown that it is today, and with overseeing a capital campaign that raised more than $30 million.
“I look at her as a hero,” said Judy Hamill, a museum donor. “Here’s a woman who’s done a tremendous amount for the community, has actually put Asheville on the map.”
Hamill said she was unmoved by the employee complaints detailed by Asheville Watchdog.
The employees “were saying, ‘Oh, she criticized me about something,’ ” Hamill said. “What is it with people these days? They’re so thin-skinned.”
She noted that Myers came from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
“I know it’s not very politically correct,” Hamill said. “I do think people who are involved in extraneous things like the gift shop, if they’re truly unhappy, I’m not sure I care.”
The museum, Hamill pointed out, is a nonprofit institution accountable to the Board of Trustees.
“Why some people in the public would do this,” she said, “I think they have no standing. It’s just troublemakers.”
Myers has been a divisive figure during her 27-year tenure at the museum.
Randy Shull, a prominent Asheville artist who served on the museum’s board for about 10 years, said he and his wife stopped donating to the museum over Myers’s handling of a dispute around 2014 with the Diana Wortham Theater over space the two organizations shared in a cultural center called Pack Place.
“It was dealt with in a combative way,” Shull said. “We recused ourselves of giving to the Asheville Art Museum until we have a new director.”
Shull and his wife, Hedy Fischer, who own Pink Dog Creative in the River Arts District, have donated art that is part of the museum’s permanent collection. “I’d like to be able to do that more, because Asheville’s been a great community for us to live in,” Shull said.
He said the controversy over Myers has “been brewing for decades. To see this come out in the open is not surprising … I’m not shocked by any of it. It’s just like, Wow, finally.”
Shull said he would like to see Myers retire and be “celebrated for all that she’s done and have a clean slate for the community to attract a really good director with significant talent that reflects the values that Asheville projects.”
Some Asheville Artists Complain
Some Asheville artists have complained that the museum is inaccessible and unsupportive of local work.
Gillian Maurer, a transgender artist who grew up in Asheville, said a donor gave them free access to the museum while they were a student studying fine art at the University of North Carolina Asheville.
“That was like one of the few times over the course of multiple years, working as an art student in the city, that I was even able to step foot inside that space,” said Maurer, who uses they/them pronouns.
They said Asheville represents itself as a progressive and inclusive city for LGBTQ artists, but the museum “caters to a particular demographic that is no longer actually inclusive or representative of folks in the broader community here. I’ve kind of found myself in a situation of traveling and taking my work outside of the city to be able to make a living with it, and that is with the privilege of a university degree and a local culture that already privileges white artists.”
Maurer, 23, said UNCA trains students for “a museum-centered career,” but the museum caters “to artists that are not based in Asheville and then takes that work and redirects it towards tourists.”
“We Refuse to Be Bullied”
The museum was founded in 1948 by local artists. In the letter to the Trustees, the 29 ex-employees wrote that current and former staff “want to reclaim our Museum — an institution built by the community and for the community.”
The letter signers include gallery attendants, grant managers, events coordinators, and others whose tenure at the museum spanned 2011 to this year.
A total of at least 60 employees left during that time, said Candace Reilly, an ex-employee who organized the letter and gathered signatures. Two other former staffers, Lindsey Grossman and Kelly Baisley, assisted.
“We refuse to continue being verbally and emotionally abused; we refuse to be gaslit and silenced when we defend ourselves,” the letter said. “We refuse to be bullied by Myers’ supporters.”
The former employees wrote that they “care for the Museum deeply, and it is because of that love for what it is, and more importantly for what it truly could be, that we are asking you to join us in supporting the Museum and not its leader.”
As Asheville Watchdog reported, Reilly was one of six former employees who complained to the board in 2015. Eight others complained to board members David Huff and Darren Green, beginning in 2020.
The work environment is “beyond toxic,” Huff and Green wrote in a 2021 summary. “The word used by three former staff is ‘traumatic.’ ”
Both times, the board brought in an executive coach. In response to Asheville Watchdog’s story last month, the board stood by Myers, and at its next meeting removed an outspoken trustee, Michelle Weitzman, the only member to speak publicly about employee complaints, for what the board chair described as a “pattern of disruptive behavior.”
“The board made very clear they’re going to do absolutely nothing,” Reilly said. “We are going to pull out all the stops until there’s change.”
More Than 200 Signatures
Elaine Bleakney, a poet and writer in Asheville who knows Reilly and Grossman, wrote the online petition.
“Trustees who have attempted to redress the toxic culture fostered by Myers have been shut down or shut out,” the petition said. “It is time for us, artists and arts professionals of Asheville and surrounding regions, to do what the Board of Trustees has been unable to accomplish as a body: collectively and publicly voice our care for the Museum staff, advocate for them and the Museum’s future, and call for the removal of Pam Myers as Executive Director.”
As of 7 a.m. Wednesday, the petition had 227 signatures.
The museum “belongs to the citizens of Asheville,” Bleakney told Asheville Watchdog. “And I am just appalled that a nonprofit could be run this way.”
While she knew some of the ex-employees, Bleakney said she was not aware of the scope of the complaints or that staffers had twice gone to the museum’s board.
“The fact that this has surfaced twice,” she said, “it’s not acceptable. It just makes me livid.”
And the board is closing ranks, Bleakney said, “instead of responding with possibly a community roundtable or a community forum, a way to open up and connect and talk about these issues.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct a source’s error in a quote about the museum where Myers worked before Asheville.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.