The Asheville Art Museum, glistening through its glass exterior in the downtown heart of Pack Square, earns acclaim for its prized collection of American and Appalachian artwork. But behind the facade, it gets ugly, an Asheville Watchdog investigation found.
Former employees have complained of a workplace that two board members described in a 2021 summary as “beyond toxic.”
“The word used by three former staff is ‘traumatic,’ ” the board members, David Huff and Darren Green, wrote.
The nonprofit museum has collected millions of dollars in donations, admissions, grants, and memberships, and includes among its supporters Buncombe County and the City of Asheville, courtesy of the taxpayers.
In charge of it all is a board of trustees with full authority over the museum’s affairs, and one that operates out of public view, often yielding to the will of its long-time executive director, Pamela Myers.
Few outside the museum noticed when, this spring, five board members — one-fourth of the trustees — resigned.
The board has twice brought in an executive coach — in 2015 after six former employees complained about the museum’s management to trustees, and again in 2021 after eight other ex-staffers voiced their concerns to Huff and Green.
The museum appears to be “in really good shape,” said board member Michelle Weitzman. “It’s financially healthy. They win awards. It looks really pretty on the outside. But the culture of fear in employees, the morale and the attrition is horrendous.”
Myers, the museum’s executive director for 27 years, declined to be interviewed by Asheville Watchdog. She and other current board members, as well as past board chairs, would only answer questions submitted in writing.
“We regret that certain employees felt their experience at the museum was not what they would expect,” Herbert “Butch” Patrick Jr., the board chair when the 2021 complaints surfaced, wrote in response to questions from Asheville Watchdog.
Patrick said the board has taken steps including hiring a human resources associate, and that initial feedback from the executive coach working with senior leaders has been encouraging. He said, “We continue to have confidence in Ms. Myers’s leadership going forward.”
Capital Campaign a Success
The November 2019 reopening of the $24 million museum in the center of downtown marked the crowning achievement of one of the largest and longest capital projects in Asheville’s history, a campaign spanning more than a decade. Myers spearheaded the construction and fundraising.
“I don’t know many people that could have gotten that done except Pam because she had a laser focus,” said former board member David L’Eglise, who left the board about five years ago.
“I always felt like the museum, as far as financially speaking, was very solidly run and on very sound footing, and Pam, coming from New York, she seemed to bring a national element to Asheville that was very positive,” he said. “It allowed the museum to almost punch above its weight.”
The building “is completely paid for and debt-free, and a $6 million-plus endowment has been established,” wrote Paul Saenger, the museum’s current board chair. Construction was a success “due to the strong and capable leadership of Ms. Myers,” her fundraising skill, and “excellent relationships in the community and art world,” he wrote.
Huff agreed the museum is “a beautiful building, and for a city our size to have an art institution is pretty cool.”
But, Huff said, “One former employee said to us, ‘Wow, it’s an amazing museum, the art collection is impressive, but at what cost?’ ”
‘Run Like a Dictatorship’
Employee complaints have dogged the museum for years. Asheville Watchdog interviewed 11 former staffers and one current employee and reviewed a half-dozen letters to the board dating to 2015.
Common themes emerged: Employees complained of high turnover that led to them filling in for open positions for months at a time with no additional compensation and salaries below or near Asheville’s living wage of $40,768 a year. They described being blamed for failures they didn’t cause and harshly criticized in front of other employees or museum guests.
The museum is “run like a dictatorship, and everyone else is like servile to the dictator,” said one of several former employees who spoke on the condition that they not be named, fearing possible retaliation by some in the arts community. “I watched so many good, qualified people come in and just get wasted because they got so frustrated with the lack of communication and the poor treatment of staff.”
Lacy Nance started in February as the museum’s adult programs and community outreach associate and left in October. She said Myers was “extremely hard to talk to” and treated staff like “we are nothing.”
Part of Nance’s job was to work with other organizations to create programs and events to bring people to the museum.
“It’s been extremely hard for me to connect with the community because [Myers] has burned bridges with a lot of people,” Nance said.
Asheville Watchdog reached out to two prominent arts organizations and a gallery in Asheville, but none would speak publicly about Myers or the museum.
Saenger wrote that the museum would not comment on “employee-specific information or individual employee comments.”
The museum has experienced high turnover, a problem common to many nonprofits, but former employees said Asheville’s museum management and working conditions contributed to the exodus.
Matilyn Hull worked at the museum for a year in communications before resigning in August. “I saw 11 full-time staff members leave, and that’s about half of the staff,” she said.
At times Hull said she was the only one, or one of two people, in what had been a five-person department, and 10 months into her tenure — at the age of 25 — she became the most senior member, juggling multiple responsibilities and training new hires.
“It’s like a recipe for burnout,” she said.
In August, Hull left the museum with no other job lined up.
That same month, the museum awarded staff pay raises to address “the lag in employee pay,” according to a letter sent to employees.
Speaking to Former Employees ‘Unethical’
Trustee Huff said he became concerned about working conditions after the June 2020 resignation of Lindsey Grossman, the museum’s communications manager.
Grossman “hit it out of the park” promoting the museum’s reopening in the fall of 2019, Huff said. In February 2020, Grossman received a raise for what Myers described as “excellent work.”
But the next month, Grossman’s two elementary school children were sent home in the Covid lockdown. Grossman said she needed time to supervise her children during the day and made several proposals to realign her schedule, including working early mornings, nights and weekends.
She said Myers accepted one proposal: that she work four 10-hour days a week, on the condition that she would have to use personal leave for the fifth day because her contract was for five days a week, according to a state labor agency document. Grossman said her personal leave days would have run out in less than three weeks.
“I didn’t want to resign,” Grossman told Asheville Watchdog. “They were giving me no choice.”
Huff said he “was aghast” at the museum’s lack of flexibility.
“If you’re a working mom, and they didn’t help you during Covid …” he said. “This is a nonprofit organization. You expect that from Google or Apple or Amazon.”
Grossman received Covid-related unemployment for several months, but the museum appealed her eligibility. After a hearing last year, the state labor agency found Grossman “left work for personal reasons not attributable to the employer.” Grossman was ordered to repay $7,215, money she said her family already spent. She has hired a lawyer, and said the labor agency is reviewing the decision.
After her resignation, Grossman met with Huff and described Myers micromanaging employees and holding up decisions. Grossman said Myers berated her for work even after Myers had already approved it.
According to Huff, Grossman said, “Other employees have had similar experiences. I said, ‘Well, if anybody wants to talk to us,’ and then employees started reaching out.”
Eight other ex-staffers came forward. Board member Darren Green sat in on about five of the meetings. A May 2021 summary of those meetings, prepared by Green and Huff and delivered to Butch Patrick, the board chair at the time, described “extremely high” turnover, a “culture of fear,” and “abusive” behavior by Myers.
“She berates, attacks and humiliates employees,” the summary said. “She cusses at them. She belittles them. She does this in front of other employees.”
Patrick told Asheville Watchdog he was surprised and concerned. But he also told Green and Huff, according to Green, that it was “unethical” that they had “talked to former employees about their experience at the art museum.”
“I felt it was my responsibility to know,” Green said.
Huff also considered it his “fiduciary responsibility as a trustee to hear from employees if there’s an issue with management.”
“Our job is not simply just to show up and go to fundraisers, help bring in money and enjoy wine and cheese events,” he said.
Saenger, the museum’s current chair, said in a written response to Asheville Watchdog that the board’s Code of Ethics states board members “must avoid giving directions to, acting on behalf of, or soliciting administrative information from staff personnel.”
If serious matters arise, Saenger wrote, “they should be reviewed by someone independent of the process, with no personal connections or agenda.”
Huff and Green said they’d never seen the Code of Ethics but that they had met with former employees and were not soliciting information from current staff.
Patrick created a committee to review the employee complaints. Huff, a consultant on leadership and governance, said, “I was told I would not be on that committee.” Neither was Green, the board’s secretary.
The committee, Saenger wrote to Asheville Watchdog, was selected by Patrick as chairman and included “individuals with exceptional HR experience as he felt appropriate.”
A consultant retained by the committee, “while not validating or discounting every observation of past employees,” recommended improvements in the museum’s human resources structure, Patrick wrote.
The board created a human resources committee, hired an HR associate (the person had left as of mid-October for another job), and brought in Berkana Consulting Group in Black Mountain to provide consulting and training to senior management.
Myers “has been very positive about the coaching and feedback she is receiving,” wrote board vice-chair Kevin Click, a former human resources executive. “She seems very committed to addressing the concerns raised, and I believe we are on a solid path forward.”
Similar Complaints in 2015
The museum’s board formed a committee in 2015 after former employee Candace Reilly and five others raised similar concerns to the trustees.
“The way the museum is being managed under Pam Myers is reprehensible and unsustainable,” Reilly wrote in July 2015. Myers harshly criticized staff when she did “not like something. Oftentimes this is in the presence of other staff, volunteers or the public.”
Lauren Bellard, a former Curatorial Fellow, wrote to the board in 2015 that high turnover, low pay, and Myers’s belittling of employees made for a “toxic work environment.”
“The place constantly felt like a sinking ship,” she wrote.
The board chair at the time, Lin Andrews, wrote to Asheville Watchdog that on the advice of lawyers she consulted, she formed an ethics/audit committee and that the allegations “were fully investigated.”
“Coaching and feedback was provided to Ms. Myers,” Andrews wrote. “Staff morale issues were addressed with Ms. Myers as part of her annual performance review.”
‘Not a Transparent Organization’
Art educator Kelly Baisley wanted the museum’s board to know about her experience after she resigned this spring. She wrote to the board but said she did not know how to get her letter to trustees — or even who they were.
The museum does not list board members on its website, an unusual omission for nonprofits of any size, much less one that has received significant community and government support. Saenger wrote that a list of board members can be found on the museum’s tax return, which is available only on request. The most recent return that the museum provided is for 2020 and lists 12 trustees who are no longer on the board.
Huff said the museum is “not a transparent organization.”
Myers required a Watchdog reporter to come to the museum to review the current board members, annual audits and bylaws, and prohibited photocopies.
The museum declined to make available Myers’s contract, her salary, or even her age (she’s 65). Myers made $164,269 annually, according to the 2020 tax return.
Asheville Watchdog checked the websites of a dozen similar-sized nonprofits in Buncombe County. All listed their board members, and the majority posted tax returns and/or audits.
“We believe our information is fully transparent,” Saenger wrote.
‘Verbal’ Board Member Loses Vote
Michelle Weitzman holds a seat on the board as president of the Docents Association. Docents are volunteers who lead tours of the museum.
From 2019 to 2021, the docent’s representative was Sarah Reincke, and since July 2021, it has been Weitzman. Both said they were regularly in the museum and raised concerns to the board about the treatment of employees.
“We were a bother,” Reincke said. “We were verbal.”
Weitzman sent a series of emails from March to May 2022 to Patrick, the board chair, and to Kevin Click, the human resources committee chair, referring to a “large morale deficit” and “enduring problem” of a stressful workplace.
Baisley resigned during that time, on March 31. “Many of us are going above and beyond, covering far more than our own job responsibilities, regularly working in excess of 40 hours … only to be criticized, micromanaged and belittled,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
Baisley wrote a second letter April 19 just to the board. After filling in twice for vacancies in the learning and engagement department, including seven months acting unofficially as director, Baisley wrote that she had requested a performance review, her first in her nearly three years there, and a raise. Instead, Myers and Lindsay Rosson, director of finance and operations, questioned her behavior, she wrote.
One example she said she was given: Several days before, Baisley and two others had asked Rosson during a meeting if a part-time employee could take on extra hours to ease the workload in Baisley’s department.
“We were met with an explosion of anger,” Baisley wrote. According to the letter, Rosson told her she had “not gone through the correct channels.” She said Rosson later apologized but then raised the incident as an example of Baisley’s inappropriate behavior. Rosson did not respond to requests for comment.
Baisley addressed her letter to the “Board of Trustees” and said she asked Weitzman, the only trustee she knew how to contact, to deliver her letter.
On April 25, Weitzman sent Baisley’s letter to Patrick, the board chair, but said by the next board meeting on May 17, he had not distributed it to all members. During that board meeting, which was virtual, Weitzman emailed the letter to the entire board.
“You are all individually and legally responsible as a board member to constantly assess, oversee and change direction to move this institution forward, not simply agree with the Executive Director’s agenda,” Weitzman wrote. “If you have the courage and bravery to do the right thing, read on.”
She wrote that the board’s executive committee “is making decisions on behalf of the board behind closed doors without informing all of the board of trustees, which is unconscionable.”
Patrick responded in an email to the board, writing that the executive committee had wide latitude to act on behalf of the board. “Employee issues that are elevated are taken seriously and addressed appropriately.”
At that same meeting in May, the board adopted new bylaws. Weitzman noticed one significant change: Her voting power had been eliminated.
The previous bylaws gave the Docents Association’s president “all the rights, duties and responsibilities of elected Trustees, including the right to vote.” The updated version described the Docent president’s role as “a non-voting member.”
Weitzman told Asheville Watchdog she believed the change was in retaliation for her outspokenness. “When I started talking about the HR situation and asking questions, it just happened to coincide with the time to be able to adjust bylaws,” she said.
Patrick said the revision was “part of a normal review … to ensure good governance, best practices, and consistency.” He said the revisions were completed in early April and “in no instance or circumstance were any changes recommended or contemplated due to actions by any individual board member.”
Tensions on the museum board reached a tipping point this spring over the future of trustee Terri Sigler, one of two Black board members. The other was Omari Simmons.
Sigler, along with Green, co-chaired a diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion committee created after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The committee brought in a consultant to conduct diversity training for the board and oversaw an equity audit that included employees, board composition, and collections.
Huff, who served on the equity committee, said the museum reflected diversity in its collections but needed improvement in the makeup of the board, staff, and vendors.
“We were challenging [Myers] to look at different ways of finding staff of color,” Huff said. He said the committee was forcing an “honest conversation” about “issues of justice and white privilege.”
The equity audit was wrapping up in April 2022 when Sigler’s name appeared on an agenda of the board development committee. The agenda item said Sigler had made a “move to New Jersey” and would complete the audit presentation to the board “at which time she will transition off the board.”
Green texted Sigler, asking: “Are you or have you resigned from the board? And she wrote back, ‘No.’ ”
Sigler had moved to New Jersey, but said she intended to return to Asheville in two to three years, and in the meantime travel back and forth and continue serving on the board, which at the time was meeting virtually.
Sigler said she spoke with the board development committee chairwoman, Lin Andrews, who told her, “It is the recommendation of that committee that I resign.” She said Andrews explained that the board planned to fold the equity committee into a newly established human resources committee and that the equity work was complete.
“However,” Sigler said, “based on the audit results, I felt the work of the equity committee was just beginning.”
Andrews wrote to Asheville Watchdog, “It was never suggested that Ms. Sigler resign … She was asked to remain on the board through the completion and presentation of the [equity] audit and that she rejoin as a trustee when her family returned to Asheville.”
Green said he argued for Sigler to remain on the board, pointing out she had regularly attended meetings and been an active board member. “And I said, ‘Furthermore, the optics of removing our only Black female board member, this is not good.’ ”
Sigler said she felt like she had proven “that I brought more to the board than brown skin,” but concluded she would rather “work with an organization that truly wanted to bring about change.”
Sigler resigned from the museum board in May. Green, Huff, Simmons and Katherine Rivers James also submitted their resignations. Simmons and James did not respond to Asheville Watchdog’s requests for comment.
Asked about the resignations, Patrick, the board chair at the time, said in an email: “I can only go by their resignation letters and what they conveyed to other board members. At face value, there were family and professional considerations along with relocations.”
Patrick declined to let a Watchdog reporter see the resignation letters.
‘Little to No Oversight’
In interviews, several former trustees of the museum said the board is beholden to Myers, a voting-member of the board.
“Pam has built the board and therefore there is little to no oversight,” said the 2021 summary of employee concerns written by Huff and Green.
Ray Griffin, a former board member who served for 11 years, said, “You never challenged Pam directly. She holds the cards.”
Huff said North Carolina’s guidebook for nonprofit boards clearly states the responsibilities of board members. Those include being inquisitive, and acting “if you believe there is mismanagement” or improprieties.
“This board of trustees as a whole has never known what goes on,” Huff said. “You take the word of the executive director that ‘everything’s working well. Nothing to see here.’ ”
Huff said that once the renovated museum opened in 2019, many expected Myers to retire and “take a victory lap, which would have been great for the institution, for her and for everybody else. But that didn’t happen.”
Asked if Myers had any plan to retire, Saenger wrote: “We do not discuss confidential employee information.”
Griffin said Myers “kept the doors open” for many years and deserves much of the credit for fundraising, but “she’s alienated a hell of a lot of people along the way.”
“Do I respect her for what she’s achieved? Yes,” Griffin said. “Do I respect her for how she’s achieved it? No.”
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 email@example.com.
A hatchet job attack on Myers but perhaps deserved, as there clearly is a longstanding serious morale problem due to her apparent authoritarian temperament.
I donated some American art to the museum several years ago. It was a very off-putting experience and as a result I vowed never to donate more.
Clearly this many years of an executive leadership board style and approach feeds the ‘exceptance’ of the employee abuse. The board is as culpable as the day to day leader(s) unfortunately, no matter how talented they might be. At some point, the museum will suffer – if not already. As a new member and a former leader myself , there is only one way this should go – a graceful departure by the Director. As much for her legacy as the museums. I will be reconsidering my renewal and follow this outcome.
How is it a “hatchet job attack” if it’s accurate, and simultaneously “perhaps deserved?”
What are you talking about?
WOW! I have worked with non-profits until my retirement, and very rarely ran into such issues – not to say that conflicts don’t happen sometimes between a director, staff, and the Board – but this seems beyond the pale!
Extremely important. I respect what Pam Meyers has done. As a member of the museum, this is vital information
None of this surprises me as a member of Asheville’s arts community. All of this has been the gossip about the museum for years.
This story could have been written 20 years ago — same complaints against same individual. One person can’t be good at all things. Maybe she should admit her weaknesses and delegate to the benefit of all.
I am related to a member that testified in this article, and I feel this was done very well according to the terrible stories I have heard about the leadership!
Why is admission so high at the Asheville Art Museum? Greenville and Knoxville are free. Columbia is $8. Asheville is $25, if you want to see the special exhibits.
Well, I’m guessing it might be because someone is making over $167.000 at this not for profit.
It is a very high salary, and definitely sounds like someone who is earning a lot despite her major mismanagement, but to be clear- it is okay for staff at nonprofits to be paid as well as staff at for profit corporations!
To be clear, that is not a high salary for an executive director of a non-profit, regardless of what you may think of the museum- or of holding the poor behavior of the individual in question to account.
Don’t conflate the two separate things as a confusion of worth and value. You don’t get to question the worth of the price-tag after the fact because you have come to question its value.
If it is true the museum recieves tax credits as a not-for-profit community residents should recieve free admission, in addition does the museum have a school outreach program if not why and a permanent collection acquisition fund and where can their mission statement be found?
Free admission to local residents is a no-brainer…at least one day of the week.
One of a series from 2014.
It sounds like a “don’t rock the boat” issue, concerning Myers. The trustees should be ashamed of this and the lack of oversight of the stated personnel issues. Old boys clubs have never helped the success of any institution. As a proud resident of Asheville for the 15 years, this is despicable. I enjoy walking by the art shops in the city and viewing wonderful art for FREE!
Thank you Sally for giving us a voice!
Lindsey Grossman, former Asheville Art Museum employee
For such a well-endowed non-profit the admission price is outrageous. I visited recently with a Zoom pass from Friends of the Library, but was told at museum I would have to pay a prohibitively high price to also view a special exhibit when there were few, if any, other visitors. Sad story.
Before Covid there was a two-hour window once a month when Asheville residents could enter and pay what they could afford. There hasn’t been any reduced price admission for Asheville residents for three years now. At least give us five dollars off a regular ticket year-round!
This was something I pushed for since the moment I started working there and was always a dead end conversation with many past employees saying it wasn’t worth it to pursue because nothing would come of it. I did all I could to offer myself up to locals wanting to see exhibitions to come in as my guest and gave out as many guest passes for free admission as I could get my hands on, but I had to do it secretly. Employees were technically only given 2 guest passes to give out per year. What is the point of offering community programs if the community can’t afford to even walk in the door?
The museum was started in 1948 by artists, perhaps it is time for a petition from the artists of Asheville to ask for her resignation. LONG OVERDUE !
I worked here in a lower, part time position for a few years, due to a passion for museums. But, ultimately, her leadership made me leave because she perpetuated a lot of mistreatment and low morale, for shameful pay (this position, you could make more at McDonalds!!) and no benefits. They assume the worst and treat you as such, no base respect for the work you’re doing for them. Ms. Rosson also, ruled with an iron fist, and she was not someone you could trust. Kelly was a live saver as well during her time of taking on more work, and she deserved a raise.
There was also an issue of sexual harassment that was never acknowledged, nonetheless apologized for. I also contributed many unpaid hours as an intern, as well as graduating with professors that work closely with the museum, with no possibility in sight of moving upward unless I worked unpaid for 5 years (I really wish this was an exaggeration..). After contributing years of unpaid and difficult work without the director ever making eye contact with me, nonetheless thanking, I realized I was not going to find a career here. Working here, with my qualifications and contributions toward the museum made me lose a lot of faith for museums idealistically. Thanks for publishing this article, it is good to see people speaking up against the wealthy overlords that control us.
As soon as the BLM protests are over, the equity work is over too? Not surprising, but extremely disappointing that Sigler was encouraged to resign. Diversity in employees only strengthens organizations and should always be championed. Especially in Asheville, where most people are white.
Did you need to add the white comment?? Enough is enough
That’s one heck of a change for the old Plaza Theater. Sounds as though there’s a cozy little fiefdom at the art museum and some sunlight is definitely needed. Since there has been so much financial success, the admission fee and an exorbitant special exhibit fee seem to be set to keep the riff raff out.
Kudos to Weitzman and the Asheville Watchdog for bringing light to this situation, and to those former employees and board members willing to speak up concerning their experiences associated with the Asheville Art Museum.
The issues cited in this article have long been either known or suspected, and, hopefully, their revelation will bring about change and transparency.
It is my opinion that the museum has placed its emphasis on raising funds for material acquisitions rather using a balanced portion of those funds to serve the Asheville community through affordable and inclusive exposure to art.
Hopefully, our museum can join other museums in offering free days and reduced entry fees so that everyone can enjoy and benefit from our beautiful museum, the heart of which must be the people it serves as well as its beautiful building and extensive collections.
It’s potential is not being met. I’ve lived in other cities where art museums have a WEEKLY edgy event with a new local / regional artist, theme, dj, bar, brings out the arts community. With a satellite location in rad or pop-ups this could easily be done. An ART city like Asheville needs this, not just beer. Just stale boomer laziness imo
Thank you for this article. The lack of transparency from this organization is unconscionable. With the amount of tax dollars flowing to the museum, far more is required of them than carefully constructed written responses to written questions. The leadership should be able, willing, and wanting to address questions from the public as well as the media. And I add my voice to many others that the admission price for the museum is outrageous. $5 less than the Metropolitan Museum of Art? No, thank you. The Asheville Art Museum may have come a long way, but it doesn’t approach being of the same value as internationally known museums like The Met and MOMA. We will continue driving to Greenville, Knoxville, Columbia and Charlotte to enjoy their excellent exhibits and foregoing our local museum. Especially now that we know what is essentially abuse of employees is continuing unabated with the board’s knowledge and lack of meaningful action.
thank you to the writer, and to Lindsey Grossman, and to Michelle Weitzman and others for speaking up.
I would like to see more effort to get people in to see the museum. I don’t know if I don’t run in the right circles or what, but no one I know ever goes to the Asheville Art Museum. I have an art degree and love art museums, but I’ve lived in Asheville for over 20 years and only been in the museum once or twice. I think the vibe over there needs to be more inclusive and welcoming.
Thank you, Asheville Watchdog and Sally Kestin, for writing a story that reveals the years-long exploitation and abuse of staff members at a nonprofit. I have experienced such treatment in several nonprofits — sexual harassment, personal abuse and intimidation — and have invariably seen the board turn a blind eye to staff complaints about management. Board members need to be watchdogs, not just pals of management. I once worked at a D.C. nonprofit headed by then-senator Terry Sanford, and I blew the whistle on the E.D. who was embezzling money and had intimidated the finance person so much he was overlooking it — and then, after she was led away and the locks changed, not only was I never thanked, but was soon fired, and soon afterward turned down for a job on Capitol Hill because the Member of Congress thought I “hadn’t been very nice to” the E.D. In many (not all) cases, nonprofit management is notoriously bad, and many a good staff person has had his or her talents, time and even professional reputation wasted and ravaged by management while board members turn a blind eye. We need a union for nonprofit workers. Asheville Watchdog, you are changing the world.
It is troublesome that a non profit institution can be so insular and opaque.
Why and what are they hiding? Why do they continue to support abuse of employees?
I worked there for several years in the early 2000s. It was a toxic workplace then and I’m not surprised it hasn’t changed. Unrealistic demands and ridiculously long hours were par for the course. Those extra hours were often completely uncompensated – we were told that we could accumulate 40 hours of comp time total per calendar year, after that it was considered part of the job. To put that into perspective, we all had 40 hours of comp time by early February. Everyone was classified as exempt, even the gallery attendants and the assistants, so no overtime, just live at the museum. There was a total lack of flexibility or understanding. I warned other parents over the years that it was not a family friendly workplace only to have them come back to me a few years later saying, wow, you weren’t kidding. It’s too bad that it has never changed; it’s a loss to everyone.
There have been other lawsuits over the years, by the way, usually about time and wage issues. In a more labor friendly state than NC they would have succeeded. It’s a shame and I hope there will be changes in the future.
I have read the above article and some of the comments. I have worked in and for museums for the 35 years. I have conducted collections assessments in 90 museums throughout the southeast. I have not encountered the perfect museum yet. I grew up in Ohio and greatly admired the Cleveland Museum of Art which for many years had Dr. Sherman Lee as director. I remember he told me that “successful museums are not democracies but as best benevolent dictatorships.” Many small museums are staffed with people who have not worked in a museum before and do not understand the big picture. Directors often work their way up through the ranks, perhaps as a curator or other staff area. They enjoy the scholarship and think being in charge will make their lives better. As one director told me, I spend all my time with personnel issues. A museum director must have expertise in fields such as art, fund-raising, staff management, collections care, board management ( and if a government funded institution then politician appeasement), and finally visitor satisfaction. Their boards usually do not come from museum backgrounds and often do not understand all the staff responsibilities and the ethical duties of caring for valuable collections. Staff who have the most contact with the public are museum guards who are often the lowest paid. So, all I can say is look at that building and collection. The results did not happen by accident, so keep that in mind when offering criticisms. Being a museum director is a tough job.
Telling people to only look at the building and collection and not consider the experiences of the employees only perpetuates a system of abuse that is all too common in this field. I worked at multiple art institutions before working at the Asheville Art Museum and was never treated with the disrespect, condescension, and lack of compassion I experienced with Pam Myers. Please don’t assume we are all new to the field and just whining about a mean boss. Even if the behavior of senior management throughout the nonprofit art world is an issue, that doesn’t make it acceptable. And change doesn’t happen until people start fighting back.
This museum is staffed mostly by folks that have lots of experience working at other museums are over qualified and moved to Asheville just for this job. Many of us kindly asked Pam to review staff morale on multiple occasions and many of us were met with hostility and/or denial.
It would be interesting to see further investigation into and reporting on the opacity of budgetary practices and funding sources.
The success of that collection is in spite of Pam, not because of her. There’s nothing benevolent about her leadership. I’ve worked in museums my entire career and left this one in complete misery. A “tough job” is not an excuse to abuse staff. I saw a complete lack of expertise in most areas and performative inclusion in collecting and exhibitions. Your contract is funded with mostly federal grants and your public stance should be in service of the artwork ONLY.
I worked there briefly in 2019 and quickly realized it was a toxic environment so I am not surprised by this article. Often, the tone is set by those at the top and that trickles down to those in the lowest paying, customer facing roles. I agree with what others have said – the admission price is prohibitive, and now that I know the building is paid off, there’s no excuse for it — unless they’re really just trying to keep low wage earners out. They could have a discount day for Asheville residents. This museum has long had a reputation for not collaborating with Asheville artists. I hope this article brings about change. Thank you, Asheville Watchdog.
This seems like a hatchet piece through and through. I’m sure some of the concerns are valid, but it’s obvious the point is to force Pam’s resignation/retirement. Cheekily adding (she’s 65) as if a woman’s age is anyone’s business or has absolutely anything to do with the matter at hand speaks volumes in terms of the tone of this piece and agenda of the reporting.
Additionally, suggesting that other board members may be there for the “wine and cheese events” sounds like a pretty basic virtue flex by Huff & Green.
In spite of the current climate, I still believe there are ways to go about changing organizations and solving problems without engaging in an old-school witch hunt.
Well the lawsuits, news stories, employee complaints, board exodus, and numerous other attempts as provoking change don’t seem to have made a difference in the last 20 years so, what would you recommend instead? She doesn’t seem to be someone who is going to willingly relinquish power so perhaps the diseased portions of the tree need to be hacked away instead.
As another former employee, this is all true. I saw it 20yrs when I worked there. It was the worst possible environment. Pam picks the board and treats employees like trash. The collection is garbage that good museums have passed on. All of this matters because public money is given to this institution.
Thank you Asheville Watchdog for getting these issues out in the open. I think many of us who support the Asheville Art Museum have heard various rumors of these issues for years but have had no inside information.
Apparently some significant changes need to be made to create a better future for the public and the museum’s employees.
Having been a museum professional my entire life, there is no museum in the entire country that pays its staff enough, and employees are rarely underworked. It is the nature of the profession. Almost all museums are underfunded and most often managed by people with no museum or curation experience at all. Most of the important work accomplished at many museums is done through federal grant funding since often at least 65% of a museum’s budget is spent on salaries and benefits. In addition, given the salaries that the Asheville museum can offer, the employees will be fairly new to the profession, and inexperienced in the business. However, having been underpaid and over worked, once they leave they can go work at another museum which will underpay them and over work them, but they will have gained the professional experience needed to get another job from the Asheville Art Museum. The museum administration might instead congratulate itself on providing base training for a number of museum professionals.
I hope you’ll be retiring soon and taking that attitude with you. It’s a disgusting indictment on our entire field that you could read numerous people’s stories of mistreatment and want to congratulate the abusers on their professional training skills.
Agreed. No excuse for rewarding abusive practice by rationalizing it as “experience.” Please- a shameful, repulsive attitude.
I can guarantee there is no “base training” coming from anywhere in this museum other than the prior training the overqualified staff has gained elsewhere. There was no onboarding, no training provided from any directors, and no guidance- only criticism. This is a very gross take.
What does it say about the health of the Asheville arts economy if the institution that presents itself as THE major art museum serving the Western NC region serves, at best, as a jumping off point for early career professionals to leave for another job as soon as they are able? They either leave to work for a less toxic museum job outside of the region, or stay in WNC and work for smaller organizations without six million dollar budgets to draw from—or they leave the field of arts/museums/nonprofits altogether.
The situation described is absolutely NOT inevitable in this work. Asheville is known for its arts scene, but imagine how much more beautifully the arts could have flourished without decades of bright and passionate people being churned through and spit out. The Asheville Art Museum has clearly done tremendous harm not only to people’s lives, but also to the Asheville creative sector & the museums industry by perpetuating this abusive cycle.
Congratulate itself? Christine del Re, this is such a depressing take and besides the point. We don’t need to accept a status quo of low pay and an abusive workplace culture in Asheville just because former AAM employees might be able to move on to greener pastures afterward – and that’s not as easy a task if you have a life and other responsibilities in the area. Let’s focus on making our own pastures greener to begin with.
I’m mixed race. I applied here twice- once, where I wore my hair in its natural large afro state, and didn’t get it. About 4 months later, I applied again, straightening my hair, and got it. My resume didn’t change.
Of course, that is a heavy accusation- there are a lot of factors at play like staffing timing, museums needs, different interviewers, etc. However it was hard not to notice. It made me consider a lot about peoples unconscious biases. Take with that what you will on the topic of performative activism, considering the role was advertised with ideas meant to include new diversity..
The entire staff is and continues to be white with no real actions being taken to promote diversity.
There are currently a few poc employed by the museum BUT they are only in lower level positions. Speaking on my experience as being one of the few employees of color the museum has ever had, I felt very isolated. The last thing you want to feel in a place you have to spend multiple waking hours in is isolated.
It’s very strange to watch exhibitions promoting diversity cycling in and out of the museum knowing that the main people putting it together and profiting off of it are white. The museum touting diversity rings hollow without voices of color in leadership, curatorial, or education. It’s self-congratulatory and tiresome.
As a family member and friend of a few employees, I can tell you that this is no “hatchet job”. Just true and accurate information. I have seen the legal abuse or lack of compensation for overworked employees, questionable management of grant money, verbal harassment, and just down right lack of respect and decency!
Thank you Sally for writing this article. I really hope that this brings to light what has been in the dark for many years..
As an art museum executive director myself in this region- I am at a loss as to how this style of leadership went unchecked by the board for decades. I love my staff, respect my board and contract employees. I personally and professionally can not fathom mis-treating another human in a work environment. Art museums are tremendous resources for any community and their leaders should be held accountable because the sense of community begins within their walls.
This article saddens me greatly.
PS: our museum does not charge admission, as we like to remove any barriers that might prohibit people in our community from engaging with our exhibitions. Art is for everyone!
If there wasn’t a serious management problem at the Asheville Art Museum, then Sally Kestin wouldn’t be reporting on it. While volunteering at the Asheville Art Museum pre-Covid I experienced a definite undercurrent of employee frustration and anger. Employee resignations were a constant. Pam Myers seemed to work very hard to set her legacy; but apparently at the expense of kind and fair treatment of the very people who helped her achieve her goals. Whatever dysfunction is allowed to fester needs to be stopped, especially given this eye-opener of a story. The museum can be a huge, locally-loved landmark WITHOUT such a dictatorship and overt abuses. And indeed, why aren’t current Asheville artists better represented and respected?
The collection is terrible. Went once and can’t imagine ever going back. Myers sounds like a terrible human being.
As a former employee who appealed to the board in 2015, I applaud recent efforts to correct these wrongs. This article – I can only assume for legal reasons – barely scratches the surface of the unethical, abusive environment at the Museum. For years (and it seems currently) there was no HR or oversight, other than Pam. What the article does not include is the multiple reports of sexual-harassment, reports of a staff member who watched pornography at his desk all day, being bullied by benefactors, dishonest grant reporting…much of which was reported and callously ignored. To the critics who say this is “just normal nonprofit life”: that is lazy, cowardly and wrong.
Just want to push back on the “these young inexperienced staff were so lucky to have worked there” narrative. I came to the museum with nearly a decade of professional museum experience – from a much bigger institution that treats its employees much better. When i worked there and afterwards, almost the whole staff had similar backgrounds. Many had more experience than I did and many have gone on to do well at other museuns, but they had to leave Asheville to do it. Some of us were stuck there. Asheville didn’t/doesn’t have a whole lot of opportunity for professional careers of any kind, let alone in the arts. People take what jobs they can and Pam is great at making empty promises. People stayed because they believed passionately in the arts and the museum and they left because they were treated horribly.
I’ve worked at other museums and nonprofits since. This treatment and rate of turnover is not at all the norm.
I would love to see audited financials. The 990s are not showing the complete financial picture. Curious to see the annual budget including sources of income and contributions. Not even an annual report on their website.
As a present employee of the Asheville Art Museum, I want all of the naysayers to know that my workplace is not the toxic hell scape everyone has been describing. Certainly there is room for improvement but I love working in its midst. Our guests constantly tell us how impressed they are by the quality of the museum for such a small city. They remark highly of our permanent collection and our special exhibitions. They love their visits and are wowed by the beauty of our facility. In addition, most guests are not unhappy about admission prices and express support for our efforts. I do agree that there could be discounts for locals and other groups. It’s possible this could change. We are one of the leading art museums of the southeast and recently won The National Award For Museum and Library Service. Pam and her curatorial staff are a big part as to why we have this reputation. There is some truth about the problems between Ms. Myers, her employees and the board. It can’t be denied. That said, much of the wild accusations against her are fairly exaggerated. I can only speak of my experience but she has always treated me with kindness and without condescension. I feel I can always talk to her if I have concerns or suggestions. Though not perfect, I feel proud working under her stewardship. It’s a tough job and I have to give her a lot of credit. This investigative piece has been a crushing blow to the museum. Perhaps there is a silver lining in all of this and hopefully Ms. Myers will pay attention and continue to move the museum forward in new and unexpected ways.
To read how employees past and present have been treated and still continue to defend senior management disgusts me. Furthermore, senior management loves mousy brown-nosers, so I am not surprised you’ve never had a bad interaction with them. It is a lot easier to ignore the shit going on around you when you’ve worked to insulate yourself from the source of the problems; I would imagine sucking up to management also prevents them from scrutinizing your work too closely or adding to your workload as much as other employees who don’t spend all of their time kissing ass. Also, you failed to mention that the the quality of exhibitions in the museum comes at the cost of curatorial staff being constantly stressed and overworked. As far as admissions, of course rich tourists aren’t complaining about the high prices. Additionally, the only reason organizations such as museums receive tax exempt status is because they are supposed to be serving the public. The Asheville Art Museum does not work to engage or benefit the community as is its duty; this is not due to a lack of trying on the part of past and present staff but rather because of roadblocks created by senior management and the board who care more about serving their own egos and wallets then the local community.
Gross and selfish take, Lara.
You’re right about one thing “Present Happy Employee,” you can and should only speak of your own experience. I’m thrilled that you personally have been treated with kindness and respect and feel proud to work under Pam, but that does not give you the right to discount the experiences of anyone else. If you have read the comments streaming in on any platform where this article has been shared, you will see that you are in the minority. Since you posted anonymously, I can only guess based on the high turnover rate that you are fairly new to the institution and were not present for many if not all of the examples of toxicity mentioned in this article. Even if you have been there for years, what gives you the right to determine that the accounts shared were exaggerated? It takes courage and strength to call out those abusing their positions of power and we are proud that we have shared our stories.
It’s easy to work amid a toxic workplace with that paycheck, isn’t it?
There is so much corruption in Asheville.
The cost of living is already so high and this is where our tax dollars went for so many decades… into the pockets of people like Wanda Greene, Dr. Ron Paulus, and Pam Myers. When will the people of Asheville get truly affordable housing, healthcare, and culture?
This museum has won awards and created worthwhile exhibitions and programs despite Pam Myers and Lindsay Rosson, not because of them. Their staff constantly work to do their best for the community within a broken system. Curatorial achievements are made by curators, interns, fellows, and exhibitions staff without deep contributions from Pam beyond scope. And with prohibitive admissions costs, and broken community relationships on the individual and institutional level, this org is kept from reaching its potential. Internally, there is a culture of being met with resistance to requests for improvement, or fear of speaking up at all, and often an attitude from longer term staff of “we’ve asked before, and know it’s not worth trying again.” Staff are constantly picking their battles, and there are no channels of open communication. Pam and Lindsay don’t trust the staff they’ve selected to operate their institution. The curatorial team’s ridiculous conditions pale in comparison to the conditions of other departments, particularly visitor services. This article just scratched the surface.
Here’s the first problem – the Exec. Dir. should never be a voting member of the Board of Directors. It’s a HUGE conflict of interest as shown by the many examples peppered throughout this story. The BoD HIRES the ED, and the ED should answer to the BoD every year during an annual review.
Any time a nonprofit is keeping secret things that ought to be public, there’s reason to be concerned. Reporter Sally Kestin asked reasonable and insightful questions that any nonprofit CEO or board member should have been willing to answer. There may be debate about the CEO’s performance, but one thing the story clearly portrays is abject failure of board leadership.
Shades of Wanda Greene and Team Wanda.
I signed up and was trained as a volunteer back in 2019. I did two service days and I could see that the organization was very unorganized and the staff was overworked. It was not what I expected at all as my previous experiences volunteering for art museums have been wonderful. Covid struck and I have never been back. BTW, as a volunteer at the art museum in 2019 we were tasked with working the front area – basically selling tickets, gifts, and memberships.
Good reporting….I encountered the exact same situation at a Museum in Southampton, NY where the Director becomes the dictator with the support of influential donors and a a tight core board of “yes” folk. One either fits in or walks out. Such a pity.
I would like to make a clarification on Mr. Patrick’s statement, “We regret that certain employees felt their experience at the museum was not what they would expect.” It is not “certain employees,” it is the vast majority of current and former staffers. While only “certain” employees have spoken up, it is a well know truth that just about every employee who has worked at the Museum has “felt their experience was not what they would expect.” It is fear that has kept many, many others from speaking up – fear of retaliation; fear of being professionally harmed; fear of disappointing Museum/Pam advocates; paralyzing, emotional fear; fear of being in the news. While some of us made the decision to go public with our experiences, we acknowledge and respect our colleagues who did not.
I applaud those who have spoken out openly about the work environment at AAM. I worked at the museum for many years and “traumatic” feels like an understatement. I could spend the rest of my life in therapy trying to sift through how much that place messed me up. I loved my colleagues and believed deeply in the work I was doing but I was terrified of Pam Myers. As other comments have mentioned, the museum can be a good launching pad for young professionals and those who were able to use it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things fared best. The rest of us got chewed up and spit out. If you are rooted in the community and do not wish to or are not able to go elsewhere, there is no room for advancement and you end up feeling quite trapped, stuck and terrorized by the culture of fear at the museum. Ms. Myers was volatile and aggressive with her employees, often yelling and cussing at them in front of other employees. In my time there, I witnessed her causing fellow employees to break down in tears on numerous occasions. We all felt held hostage to her moods, frequently asking one another upon arrival to the museum “how does she seem today?” She seemed to view her employees as disposable, interchangeable and purely there to service her vision. Moreover, she impeded productivity and efficiency. For example, everything had to be approved by her but she often ignored requests for approval which caused everyone to scramble at the last minute to try to reach deadlines.
I watched many talented, passionate professionals come and go and it hurt my heart. For all the museum is and has achieved in terms of the expansion and the collection, I sometimes think about how much more it could have been and could be with different leadership. Museums are not (and should not be) sterile mausoleums of objects. They should be living, breathing, dynamic and inclusive places that serve their communities and serve as hubs of discourse and connection. People, not things, are the greatest asset of a cultural institution. Smart, gifted, wonderful people are drawn to Asheville… what might those people be able to achieve in a museum with real support and mentorship? What might be possible in a more nurturing environment where a range of ideas are given voice?
I liked it all, but the 2nd paragraph is written really beautifully. I love your style
It has been fascinating to read both AVL Watchdog articles on the Asheville Art Museum, its executive director and its board of directors, as well as many of the thoughtful comments. A few questions still come to mind.
Has there been any significant change in how employees are treated since the original complaints were filed and executive coaching was conducted? Most references are made to past conduct. Has anything changed?
If the prior allegations by past employees are true, and the board feels they have addressed them, have the working conditions at the museum actually improved or has nothing changed? If working conditions have actually improved this is an important missing piece from the story.
It is noted in the article that only one current employee was interviewed, so what are current conditions? In reference to the executive coaching, it is noted that the director “has been very positive about the coaching and feedback she is receiving,”…”she seems very committed to addressing the concerns raised, and I believe we are on a solid path forward.”, but this is the view of a member of the board. Does the staff feel the same way? Has this coaching produced any real change?
Does the annual review of the executive director involve feedback from staff or others with whom the director interacts?
Reference is made to an annual review of the director, but who conducts this review and how is it done? As part of the review, is input sought from staff, volunteers, donors/supporters etc. or is it just the perspective of the board? As part of the annual review, if input is not sought from others outside of the board, is there a reason?
Is there an Employee Handbook of policies for the Art Museum? If so, does it contain a Whistleblower or Grievance Policy? Mention is made in the article of a Code of Ethics for the board of directors, but are there similar formal personnel policies?
If any employee of an organization has an issue or grievance with the CEO, to whom can that employee raise that issue without fear of retaliation? Is there such a policy or procedure in place at the Art Museum?
I think that you asked valuable questions. As a current employee, I can say that the environment is as described. Also in typing that I’m a current employee, I’ve deleted an written that three times, the fear is still there.
The articles have not been spoken about in staff meetings, or addressed by any management, it’s been ignored. They’re waiting for it to blow over, just like last media issues. I’d say that there’s still an issue of tiptoeing around upper management and their tempers.
In the employee handbook, it states that the review of the executive director is done by the board. I know that there hasn’t been any auditing or revising done by staff in at least five years, where we can share concerns or grievances. As of right now, there is a board member that is named the HR committee head but they aren’t accessible for staff. That person has comments shared in these articles that have come out, they’re friends with Pam.
I’m our policies, it states that we’re supposed to take our grievances to our supervisor, which for most of us is Pam. Most departments right now are so understaffed that they’re working without a department head. It also states that if we have a grievance with the executive director, we are to contact the board. That has been done and they made it clear that they weren’t there to handle any “personal” problems with staff. Whistleblowing has the same policy.
If the attitude with upper management and the board right now is, Pam is great and we’ll just defend her until this blows over, then nothing is going to change. I don’t know that the right questions are being asked in these articles to spark any investigation or excite any change. We’ll see…
I had a therapy practice for many years. Frequently, a client would be suffering from abuse in a workplace relationship. It would be every bit as debilitating as an abusive personal relationship, and like personal or familial relationships, often very difficult to leave. decent employment in the art world is hard to come by.
I am so happy that small-city Asheville has a good art museum; and deeply disturbed to learn that it has long been in the hands of an abusive boss.
As a New Yorker and Fine Art Professional who is planning to move to Asheville this year, this news has been incredibly disappointing and disheartening. I have been looking at the Museum’s careers page every day for the past six months, waiting for something to come up for me to apply to. It was only this week that I found out through other AVL residents that the museum’s director has such a bad reputation. I will no longer be considering sending an application to the museum until they have a new director. The poor leadership does not seem to reflect the brilliant art community in the city, and it’s a shame. Residents should feel proud of such an institution – instead, the vibe is fraught with toxicity.
That being said, any time I have visited the museum, the staff seemed so wonderful, kind, and helpful. Everyone wants to feel like they are doing a good job, no matter their position or profession. I assume the director has that in her as well, however, as one commenter said, she might do well in admitting her shortcomings and delegating accordingly. As for the board – if you want to feel proud about your city and your service, you must not look away from the painful issues at hand. Pam can’t run a great museum without a great team, and you can’t have your chair without her.
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