Less than a month after the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) publicly apologized for mishandling allegations of sexual misconduct against departed employee Joshua R. Helmer, the institution is facing scrutiny over another case of workplace harassment. Today, February 21, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an exposé detailing shocking accusations of physical and verbal abuse against the museum’s previous director of retail, James A. Cincotta.
The Inquirer interviewed 14 current and past museum employees who said Cincotta would hit, slap, punch, pinch, and shove his colleagues to the point of bruising and tears as well as denigrate them verbally, often in public. In one complaint to the museum’s president, a worker described a young gift shop employee crying and shaking after Cincotta struck her in the back of her head in 2016, leading her to quit her job.
Although the museum received repeated reports of Cincotta’s behavior after he was hired in 2015, he remained employed through 2018 at a reported annual salary of $161,000, among PMA’s highest. When he was let go in June 2018, Cincotta was allowed to remain on the board of Collab, one of the museum’s member groups. The Inquirer reports that his continued presence in the building alarmed workers, who contacted human resources and security.
In some cases, Cincotta’s behavior was initially mistaken for rough yet innocent play, but became cause for concern as it grew violent or incessant despite complaints. Julie Lederman, a consultant for the museum’s wholesale department, told the Inquirer that Cincotta snuck up behind her and pinched her thigh several times, ignoring her requests that he stop.
She reported the conduct to human resources, who launched an investigation but did not remove Cincotta, promising staff that he would receive sensitivity training.
Marianne Brown, a retail staff member, said she told HR that “people [were] getting physically harmed and verbally tortured.” According to Brown, Cincotta then demoted her position from a full-time to an on-call role.
The recent emergence of sexual misconduct allegations against Helmer, who was an assistant of director of interpretation at PMA from 2014 to 2018 and executive director of the Erie Museum until he was fired last month, sparked urgent demands for structural change at PMA. After a New York Times article exposed Helmer’s history of making advances toward female subordinates and using his position to garner sexual favors, more than 300 former and current PMA employees signed a petition calling for institutional accountability.
In response, PMA CEO Timothy Rub held an all-staff town hall meeting where he offered his apology to staffers. In a statement provided to Hyperallergic following the town hall, Rub ensured his “firm commitment to do all that is necessary to address our issues head on, to ensure that this is a workplace in which people feel secure and fully supported.”
But some museum employees cautioned to take Rub’s promises with a grain of salt. They worried that his apology did not outline specific policy action needed to overhaul the institution’s toxic work culture, which their petition described as “endemic to the field.”
The news of the museum’s inaction despite numerous accusations against Cincotta has only amplified their qualms. According to the Inquirer, staff who reported Cincotta’s conduct to museum management felt that their complaints were dismissed because Cincotta was successful in leading the museum’s retail efforts.
“That they would allow a known abuser to participate in the museum in any way was very demoralizing and upsetting. It was a clear signal to many people that they did not value workers’ rights,” one anonymous employee, who claims Cincotta slapped him in the face in 2017, told the Inquirer.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a PMA spokesperson said, “The Museum endeavors to create a work environment where all staff is respected and properly treated. We have embarked on an important project with outside experts to undergo a thorough review of our workplace culture, including a review of past incidents, general work environment, and existing policies, programs and training activities.”
“We have engaged the consulting firm of VallotKarp to prioritize staff engagement in developing an approach to this culture assessment. Staff participation will be central throughout,” PMA added. “The assessment will utilize surveys, focus groups and individual interviews to understand past issues and the culture in which they occurred in order to identify clear and actionable recommendations to improve the Museum’s work environment for all staff.”
According to the Inquirer, a meeting between museum employees and VallotKarp is scheduled for today. The goal, said the museum in its email, is “to build upon our commitment to providing an environment where every member of staff feels secure, respected, and valued, and where issues that arise are handled not only appropriately but as swiftly as possible.”