Recent departures from the Asian Art Museum's contemporary art department paint a picture of a toxic work environment known to museum leadership. (Illustration by Kelly Heigert; images from iStock)
Emily was two days away from taking a three-month medical leave from her job at the Asian Art Museum.
But first she had to get through a video meeting with Abby Chen, her supervisor and the head of the contemporary art department. Emily had previously told Chen she was taking the leave to address her gender dysphoria, but she had no intention of going into the specifics of her time away. It was private, personal, and above all, had no bearing on her work as a research assistant at the museum.
The meeting on July 26, 2021, did not go well.
In the grievance Emily filed on Aug. 14, with the help of her union, SEIU 1021, she described Chen directly asking if she was taking the leave to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Emily said she tried to deflect the question by speaking in more vague terms. (KQED is using a pseudonym because the former employee fears for her personal safety as a trans woman of color.)
“She characterized the procedure as a ‘huge decision’ that I would ‘have to think about very hard,’ which felt like she was attempting to advise me on a decision that is completely my own to make—or even dissuade me from the surgery,” Emily wrote of Chen in the grievance.
As the meeting progressed, Emily grew more uncomfortable. In the grievance, Emily wrote that Chen advised her to “save my sperm,” and shared details about her own reproductive decisions and regrets. Emily says when she attempted to remind Chen of the incredibly personal nature of her questions, Chen became visibly upset and appeared on the verge of tears.
“I do remember feeling completely shocked and disgusted that Chen was making herself out to be the ‘victim’ of this interaction and me the ‘aggressor’—an extremely manipulative tactic,” Emily later wrote.
Emily says Chen then asked if Emily could give her feedback about crossing professional boundaries, claiming it was something she had always struggled with. Emily says she promised to think about the topic and provide feedback at a later date.
“This interaction made me feel monstrous to be transgender,” Emily wrote in her grievance. According to Emily, an hour after the meeting, Chen texted an apology for the invasive questions and thanked Emily for “calling her out.”
Emily never returned to work at the museum. Since her departure, a picture has emerged of the toxic atmosphere in the museum’s contemporary art department, a dynamic known to museum leadership. At the center of that picture: a disconnect between the institution’s public-facing objectives and its internal working relationships. One of the most recent shows to open at the Asian Art Museum is Seeing Gender, which includes examples of gender fluidity and subversion in Asian art.
Just before the end of her leave, Emily quit, sending an email to union members announcing her departure on Oct. 27, 2021.
“I envisioned myself staying at the museum and in this position for longer because I really cared about the work that I did and found it extremely fulfilling,” Emily wrote. “However, the completely inappropriate behavior of my supervisor has forced me to make this decision. I’ve decided that I can no longer sacrifice my safety, dignity, and mental health for the sake of my career.”
A rare grievance filed
Emily was the third staff member from the contemporary art department to leave in just over two years. All three former employees name Chen’s actions as a manager—citing transphobia, bullying and varying degrees of unprofessional behavior—as primary or contributing reasons for leaving the institution.
The museum, however, does not see these departures as connected.
“The Asian Art Museum’s turnover rate has been very stable for many years,” the museum said in a statement provided to KQED. “We do our best to nurture development and growth for our staff. We’re proud when staff take on new roles at prominent institutions, knowing that their time at the Asian Art Museum helped pave the way.”
The museum declined to make Chen available for an interview.
Because Emily was the only employee who made a formal complaint to HR—and took the further step to file a grievance through the union—the July meeting is the only such incident with a paper trail. Emily was aware of this. Even though she didn’t expect a tangible outcome from the grievance, filing it meant her experience would reach museum leadership.
“I just wanted to make sure that the right people knew,” she says.
The Asian Art Museum’s union stewards say it’s rare for museum employees to file grievances. While staffers may come to them with complaints of harassment or bullying by their managers, it’s extraordinarily challenging, they say, to get anyone to put anything down in writing because of a fear of retaliation.
“I’m here to help these members, and when they hide away like that I can’t help them—it’s really heartbreaking to watch,” says union steward Michael Hubbard, who works at the museum as a facilities coordinator. “In the end, we’ve seen this happen: the easiest course of action is eventually these employees end up resigning because there’s nowhere else to go.”
Similarly, if there isn’t a recorded incident to investigate, the museum can’t be faulted for ignoring a larger problem.
“We continue to proactively invite union leadership to provide specific examples of bullying or share incidents when workplace culture does not align with our values or offer actionable suggestions about how to positively evolve workplace culture at the museum,” the museum wrote in a statement. (The museum recently hired its first director of inclusion and belonging; that employee started work on Jan. 31.)
On Dec. 20, union membership sent a letter to museum leadership and requested that Chen be removed from her position as head of contemporary art. The letter alleges Chen remains antagonistic to colleagues, exhibiting a lack of collaboration, harassment and lack of professional boundaries.
“These constitute a toxic work environment,” the letter reads.
But to museum leadership, the case is closed.
“The museum has taken appropriate measures to ensure any substantiated incidents remain isolated and do not recur in the future,” the museum said in the statement. “The process is prompt, thorough, and effective and it worked here in the same way it has worked before when various workplace issues and conflicts arise.”
A non-traditional approach
When Chen joined the Asian Art Museum in January 2019, a flurry of media excitement surrounded the museum’s choice for its first head of contemporary art. This reporter participated in the fanfare.
Chen was a local art-world celebrity, but not an obvious choice for the position. In the statement provided to KQED, the museum now says that was precisely the reason why she was recruited for the job: “She brings with her a non-traditional, non-academic, and extremely dynamic perspective on the power of uplifting marginalized voices and broadening institutional platforms.”
Previously the artistic director of the Chinese Culture Center, Chen had established a reputation over her 12-year tenure at the community arts organization for enlivening staid spaces and bringing energetic contemporary art projects to San Francisco’s Chinatown. (Emily previously worked for Chen at the CCC.)
But Chen’s new position includes an entirely different set of responsibilities: building a contemporary art collection, courting major donors, and dealing with things like acquisition paperwork and conservation concerns.
Even if she was starting fresh, Chen was gaining a department with deep institutional knowledge. That included associate curator Dr. Karin Oen, who joined the Asian Art Museum in 2015; assistant curator Marc Mayer, at the museum since 2011; and project manager Megan Merritt, a museum employee since 2016.
By February 2020, slightly a year after Chen came on as head of contemporary art, both Oen and Mayer had resigned.
Oen’s departure in August 2019 is complicated by the fact that she too applied for the position of head of contemporary art. A museum spokesperson points to this—and a subsequent job offer overseas—as the reason she left. But Oen says she would have considered staying on at the museum if Chen had not been her manager. She had family in the Bay Area, a stacked schedule of exhibitions and programs, and she believed in the work she was doing with Mayer around the museum’s expansion.
A few months into Chen’s tenure, there was still an uncomfortable social dynamic in the department. Oen describes Chen as having a “harsh managerial tone” at team meetings. A fairly casual, collegial conversation could turn on a dime, Oen says, “to feeling like it was like an inquisition.”
One-on-one meetings were often more focused on Chen’s personal life than work matters. Mayer says she asked him for advice navigating difficult relationships with other museum staffers. Oen was confused by her manager’s focus on non-professional issues like Chen’s weight, haircut and reproductive choices.
Oen brought her concerns about Chen’s treatment of her coworkers to the museum’s chief curator and deputy director. While Chen’s managerial style within the contemporary art department was known to them, Oen says, “they couldn’t do anything about it because it doesn’t cross a line and then nobody’s filing an actual complaint.”
The message, Oen remembers, was that everyone would need to adjust to Chen. She says these conversations “left me feeling a little bit helpless.”
A ‘confrontation every single day’
In the summer of 2019, following Oen’s departure, Mayer’s relationship with Chen began to disintegrate further. In September, she instituted daily one-hour meetings with Mayer. No one else in the department was having meetings like this. Emily, who joined the museum in October, remembers interrupting one of these interactions and seeing Mayer “in a cold sweat.”
“It got to the point where I really started to feel bullied,” Mayer says. “She just kind of spent those meetings telling me how bad I was.”
The situation started to affect his mental health.
“These meetings were horrible,” he says. “I just didn’t want to get up and go to work in the morning. Because it was like this confrontation every single day.”
Like Oen, Mayer spoke to the museum’s chief curator and deputy director about his experiences, seeking support to diffuse the situation or transfer into another department. He also went to HR, explicitly saying he felt bullied.
“It became apparent there was nowhere else to really turn,” he says.
He considered filing a grievance but already knew he couldn’t keep working at the museum. Now, he can’t help wondering if things might have gone differently for Emily if he had put his own experience on the record.
“I do feel an element of responsibility that something—while totally different—happened because of a power dynamic like that. And that sits badly with me,” he says.
When Emily announced she was leaving the museum, the investigation into her grievance was ongoing. In her farewell email to union membership, Emily detailed the meeting with Chen, along with previous interactions at both the Asian Art Museum and the CCC that she believed to be inappropriate.
“Everyone was very, very upset to hear these details,” says shop steward Steven Sciscenti, who works as a conservation technician at the museum.
A flurry of emails from union members followed, expressing shock and concern, along with calls for collective action to ensure the safety of remaining staff.
The investigation into Emily’s grievance involved the museum’s labor and employment counsel, Boucher Law, which retained a third-party workplace investigation firm, McFadden, Ingham & Ohmart, LLP, to undergo a fact-finding process into the allegations.
In a Nov. 5 email to all staff, museum director and CEO Jay Xu directly addressed Emily’s letter and the concerns of the union, acknowledging that the allegations raised “can be very upsetting.”
“I want to assure you that the museum keeps the well-being of our staff the utmost priority and is here to listen to you,” Xu wrote. “To the extent that this may provide a greater learning opportunity for the museum to further foster our commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity, we will engage in continuous learning opportunities to further our adherence to these principles.”
On Nov. 24, Xu sent another email to the museum staff announcing the investigation’s conclusion, saying that if misconduct had occurred, appropriate and effective corrective and remedial action would be taken. To share any further details would be a violation of privacy. From the remaining staff’s perspective, it looked like no response at all.
To be safe and welcoming
Recent surveys of Asian Art Museum staff show a generally happy workforce. In one, close to 60% of staff said their satisfaction was at 7 or above, out of 10. Ninety-five percent of staff reported they were proud to work at the Asian Art Museum. Prompted by the phrase “my supervisor respects me,” 26.6% of staff agreed and 53.2% strongly agreed.
But the departures within the contemporary art department, union leadership notes, are also quantifiable numbers.
“With three staff feeling as though they had no other choice but to leave, some of them without a job to go to, how many staff does it take before management says, ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t working out,’ or ‘Maybe we should reevaluate this?’” asks Jennifer Miller, a shop steward and education assistant at the museum. “It’s definitely prioritizing management over staff.”
Emily hasn’t pursued any further action since a law firm that specializes in sexual harassment and discrimination declined to represent her. “I was kind of discouraged by the idea that no one would care about transphobia,” she says, “and especially care about it in this form that isn’t as overt as a kind of capital-H hate crime.”
As for Oen, she sees the situation at the Asian Art Museum as part of a larger conversation around power and privilege, an example “of how really widespread these issues are, specifically in cultural institutions that claim a type of inclusivity and educational mission,” she says.
“But like many institutions,” Oen continues, “they haven’t really grown to accommodate the type of inclusivity and the type of restructuring that would be necessary to make them really safe and really welcoming.”
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