Art collector Seth Stolbun has stepped down from the board of Rhizome, an affiliate of the New Museum in New York, following a recent New York Times report that revealed workplace dysfunction at the Lower East Side institution. In a resignation letter dated November 5 and shared on Instagram, Stolbun said that he “cannot in good conscience have any continued relationship with Rhizome because of its relationship with the New Museum.”
Stolbun told Hyperallergic that he made a recommendation for Rhizome to end its relationship with the New Museum when the article surfaced. “The board chair and executive director did not wish to pursue it,” he said. “And this led to my resignation from the board.”
In interviews with more than 30 current and former New Museum staffers, Times reporter Robin Pogrebin uncovered allegations of unhealthy work conditions, poor compensation, and incidents of unethical behavior at the organization. One former employee compared the work environment to “a sweatshop.”
In his resignation letter, Stolbun excerpts particularly glaring testimonies from the piece. Vere van Gool, a former associate director and curator at the museum’s IdeasCity program, told the Times that she sent three complaints to management about a museum executive telling her his son “sits next to you with a hard-on all day,” but no action was taken. Other employees said they were asked to lie to US Customs about an artwork which included bird or reptile parts in order to circumvent the legal permit process.
“I volunteer my time and give my money to try to do good in the world,” Stolbun writes in his letter. “After the phone calls and emails with Rhizome’s Executive Director and Board chair, I was provided with no factual information that said that the statements in the Pogrebin article were not true.”
Rhizome is a nonprofit that commissions and supports the creation of digital and new media art, and has been an affiliate in residence at the New Museum since 2003. Stolbun, a contemporary art collector and arts patron, joined the organization’s board in May of 2019; as of today, his name is no longer included in the trustee list on Rhizome’s website.
Continuing to serve on Rhizome’s board is Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s director, who is at the center of much of the criticism about the museum’s workplace culture. In Pogrebin’s article, one former assistant called her “emotionally abusive”; another said she threw a tape recorder at him. The museum’s former financial officer, E. Annette Nash Govan, accused Phillips of concealing cash flow issues and retaliating by firing her when she disclosed such details to the board.
Phillips is also well-compensated: When the museum’s union bargained for higher wages last year, they cited the director’s comfortable salary — $768,000 annually, before a 30 percent cut this year as part of institution-wide financial adjustments.
Phillips has responded to some of these accusations with claims of sexism, arguing that her management style would be forgiven in a male leader.
The Times report, and Stolbun’s resignation, comes in the wake of turmoil at the contemporary art institution involving the museum’s union. In August, the New Museum Union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that a wave of pandemic-related layoffs was “discriminatory and retaliatory” toward vocal union members or supporters. (The museum characterized the complaints as “falsehoods and hearsay from disgruntled former staffers.”)
“We must hold our institutions accountable and not accept anything less than excellence,” Stolbun told Hyperallergic.
The New Museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
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