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.

The Asheville Art Museum // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

“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.”

Divisive Figure

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.

Artist Gillian Maurer // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

“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.

Poet Elaine Bleakney // From her website

“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 skestin@avlwatchdog.org.

Join the Conversation

22 Comments

  1. At the Asheville Art Museum, the “gift shop” and the Front Desk were one and the same, meaning that those employees were front-facing and interacted with guests and served as the first impression to the Museum. I argue they have one of the most important roles at the museum–and similarly, in any guest-serving institutions. As has been echoed again and again, there is a fierce and ugly disconnect between Pam and her supporters and the community.

    The Asheville Art Museum ONE DAY will be a museum of and for the community. Until Pam and the Board are replaced by people who are actually in service to Asheville’s citizens, it will continue to be A Hell Museum.

  2. Re: Comments from Hamill (donor)
    It isn’t just that Pam treats staff horrendously though that should be enough to fire her. She’s also bad at her job i.e. managing people, creating and maintaining relationships with community members and organizations, showing actual concern and motivation about addressing low visitor numbers, etc.

    Furthermore, Hamill’s ignorant comments about gift shops being “extraneous” just goes to show that leadership and the people they surround themselves with do not understand how museums work. It is common knowledge among museum experts that museum stores and restaurants have become much needed sources of additional revenue; leadership at Asheville Art Museum, however, treats the store and cafe as unimportant after thoughts, refusing to provide the resources and support they need in order to be profitable.

    Asheville Art Museum Exposed (@ashevilleartmuseumxposed) on Instagram

  3. Unpopular Opinion but Reality:
    I worked at the museum under Pam Myers. Yes, she can be harsh and demanding, but who wants typos and bad grammar on a press release? I’ve seen her wash the dishes after big events; she expected us to pitch in too. If she was harsh it was likely because you weren’t doing a good job. Could she have told you in a less harsh way? Absolutely.

    1. That may have been your reality, but that’s not the reality of the 29 people who signed the letter. This has nothing to do with taking constructive criticism for writing mistakes or annoyance for pitching in after events or programs. This is about Pam Myer’s lack of respect for her staff, poor management, and inability to be an effective leader.

      I’m honestly glad that you had a decent time at the Museum, but please don’t brush off the cruelty that many of us experienced from her.

    2. Yeah we’re not talking about Pam being “harsh and demanding” with staff who “weren’t doing a good job.” We’re talking about witnessing our colleagues get told they are whiny babies when they are sexually harassed at work; we’re talking about being denied access to vital tools to do our jobs and then get yelled at when we are not able to do that job properly; we’re talking about consistently being ignored when we ask questions so that we can simply do our jobs better; we’re talking about being asked to work overtime for weeks on end and then not receive a proper break or compensation, only then to be told we’re not working hard enough; we’re talking about being subjected to a colleague who watched pornography in his office for years on end but no one wanted to report it because they were afraid Pam wouldn’t believe them, then once finally reported he remained at AAM for weeks more; we’re talking about being told we are “fucking idiots” during public events when Pam didn’t like where a table or garbage bin was placed; we’re talking about having no access to Human Resources or even a policy manual (!!) so we have no idea how or whom to speak to when we don’t want to speak to Pam; we’re talking about no on-boarding so if we do get it wrong and get berated, we had no way of preparing; we’re talking about a complete lack of trust and order from the top down (can you imagine if you start your job with your boss immediately mistrusting you and treating you like garbage?); we’re talking about watching kind, hard-working, talented young and old professionals cry at their desks day after day. This is not “harsh and demanding”. It is not leadership. This is abuse.

    3. She helps wash dishes because there’s no events support staff, and the Membership/Events Manager position has turned over three times (or left vacant for many months) in the last two years alone. She’s not above “helping”, but it doesn’t erase her mismanagement— it’s another highlight of insufficient staff support.

  4. Right, not only does Ms. Meyers need to be replaced immediately …her unquestioningly compliant board of trustees does as well. As for the lovely donor Ms. Hamill… I’ll let her own -nauseously entitled, and completely out of touch with reality- words speak for themselves… and they speak volumes.

  5. This sounds like unbalanced reporting to me for which this Watchdog should be shamed. No data on how many employees that worked at the AAM during the last 10 years who have not signed this mud-slinging article. Where is that information and why not presented here? One person objected to something to do with the theatre-how many did not object? Balanced reporting would detract from your outrageous reporting which is the goal of the Watchdog.

    1. You question balance in the reporting and note, “One person objected to something to do with the theatre-how many did not object?” I believe you miss the point or the reporter’s intent. To be balanced, the reporter quoted two museum donors, one who defended the museum and gave her reasons, and one who stopped supporting the museum and gave his reasons. His reason had something to with the theater – it could have been anything. In my view that is balanced reporting – two opposite actions in response to one issue.

    2. I did not sign the letter or go on record with Watchdog because I am afraid of retaliation from Pam and the board members who are in active leadership roles in this community. My experience was traumatic. There were absurd breaches of my personal and professional boundaries. I am really grateful to the employees and community members who are speaking out publicly. Watchdog is giving the Museum every opportunity to share their side. Pam has a platform and could issue a statement at any time. The Theater is just one of the many examples of community relationships that are strained. I was often told by Pam government organizations, local funders, and others didn’t support the arts in Asheville—-it was made very clear they did not support her.

    3. Christine Del Re seems to be taking a rather defensive posture, and an unbalanced one at that, while distracting from the problems at the museum. Leaves me wondering what nerve was touched that sent this reader into such a defensive stance. Sort of like “I’m shocked, shocked to see abusive behavior going on …” as someone walks up and says “here are your (entitlement) winnings”. If this reader is interested in being even handed and balanced, where are the comments speaking to what is going on at the museum with its apparently comfortable complacent board, and an executive director who may be highly effective at raising money but who appears to not be qualified to manage people. Stop making the executive director position a vanity position for an effective fundraiser, and assign the position to a real qualified director.

  6. Ms. Hamill sounds elitist, uncaring and out of touch. She gives off a very “let them eat cake!” vibe. Probably very much like Ms. Myers.
    The outspoken employees were very courageous in attempting to shine light on an aggregious working conditions for a very underpaid staff. Employees spoke out because their attempt to bring about positive changes were unheard and ignored by Ms. Myers and other members in administration.
    Shame on anyone who belittles or dismisses their attempt for improvement for the museum and the community at large.

  7. As a 501c3 organization isn’t the Asheville Art Museum supposed to update its North Carolina solicitation license, reporting tax information etc. each year with the sec of state and could it be considered to be a conflict of interest for its executive director to be on the board of directors? The most recent dates shown on the N.C. Sec of State site is 2020. 990 statements can be interesting. Perhaps the site hasn’t been updated.

    1. I was responsible for applying for the solicitation license, in my years long career as a grants manager I was never responsible for that. It is compliance and should fall to the CFO or COO—in this case the same individual—the museum was under an extension when I arrived and remained so when I left. Much like their reaccreditation, grants, and other projects they are constantly asking for extensions. This isn’t uncommon for pandemic projects, but the museum’s history of not delivering on time is far beyond the last three years.

    2. In further checking – the solicitation license had been applied for and received in 2022. Apologies! This is one octogenarian who maybe shouldn’t have access to a computer, or at the very least remember to click “next” when reviewing the state’s list of documents.

  8. This story has “Hostile Work Environment” written all over it, with lots of documentation and witnesses. Does it have to come to that? Will the Board continue to sit on their hands while this environment is allowed to fester? Do something before this bites the museum where no amount of fundraising skills will help.

  9. Years ago I wrote Pam Myers about an exhibit concept that would feature the design community of Asheville as a vibrant collection of talented professionals doing breakthrough work. I was interested in doing anything I could to help curate a temporary show. She never responded. It struck me at the time that it was odd she couldn’t take five minutes to dash off a quick note. Considering all the current conversation about her quest for perfection, I came away thinking I don’t count for much in her world view.

  10. You can blame it on the staff all you want to. The reality though is that when this many people are this unhappy, there is a problem. Ms. Myers just doesn’t seem to be very interested in finding out what that problem is, or correcting it. That is the definition of poor management.

  11. Was an intern at the museum a few years back, the toxic work culture permeates all the way down. It wasn’t just pam unfortunately. Never had any direct interaction with her but this article helps make more sense of why it seemed like such an unhappy place. Mind you this was right before the museum was going to reopen, a supposedly exciting time to be there.

  12. The first story about the Art Museum, its board, and its director appeared more than a month ago. In that time has there been any kind of official response from the organization, its board or director? If so, I haven’t seen it. In fact, by the third story there were not even responses from the organization/board to the reporter’s inquiries. From this it is easy to infer the strategy of the organization is simply to say nothing and just hope it all blows over at some point. While I am sure the attorneys may approve of such an approach, it leaves a great deal open to conjecture. By not refuting anything reported, are they tacitly admitting it all happened as reported? If they are not publicly stating that the situation, as reported, has improved are we to believe that it hasn’t, or perhaps gotten worse? Or perhaps the organization cares only what its funders think and not the staff or general public. It does appear there is a campaign in the community to keep this story alive, so how does remaining silent help? Guess we are all just to make up our own minds based on the reporting and comments alone. If so, it’s not a pretty picture.

  13. Good luck. The West Michigan museum where I used to work is eerily similar and the board has chosen to ignore the constant staff turnover. In fact, new staff are staying for shorter and shorter periods of time.

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