Accusations of bullying and transphobia lead to the departure of the Asian art museum

Emily never returned to work at the museum. Since his departure, an image has emerged of the toxic atmosphere in the museum’s contemporary art department, a dynamic known to the museum’s management. At the center of this image: a disconnect between the institution’s objectives vis-à-vis the public and its internal working relationships. One of the newest exhibits to open at the Asian Art Museum is See genderwhich includes examples of gender fluidity and subversion in Asian art.

Just before her furlough ended, Emily quit, sending an email to union members announcing her departure on October 27, 2021.

“I imagined myself staying at the museum and in this position longer because I really cared about the work I was doing and found it extremely fulfilling,” Emily wrote. “However, my supervisor’s totally inappropriate behavior forced me to make this decision. I decided that I could no longer sacrifice my safety, my dignity and my sanity for the benefit of my career.

The Asian Arts Museum in 2017. (Minette Lontsie/Wikimedia Commons)

A rare grievance filed

Emily was the third staff member of the contemporary art department to leave in just over two years. All three former employees cite Chen’s actions as a manager — citing transphobia, bullying, and varying degrees of unprofessional behavior — as primary or contributing reasons for leaving the facility.

The museum, however, does not consider these departures to be related.

“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 foster the development and growth of our staff. We are proud when staff take on new roles at leading institutions, knowing that their time at the Museum of Asian Art paved the way.

The museum refused to make Chen available for an interview.

Given that Emily was the only employee to file a formal complaint with HR and take an extra step to file a complaint through the union, the July meeting is the only such incident with a paper trail. . Emily was aware of this. Although she didn’t expect a tangible result from the grievance, filing it meant that her experience would reach the museum’s management.

“I just wanted to make sure the right people knew about it,” she says.

Shop stewards at the Museum of Asian Art say it is rare for museum employees to file grievances. Although staff members can bring them complaints of harassment or intimidation from their superiors, it is extremely difficult, they say, to get anyone to put anything in writing for fear of reprisal.

“I’m here to help these members, and when they’re hiding like this, I can’t help them – it’s really heartbreaking to watch,” says shop steward Michael Hubbard, who works at the museum as facilities coordinator. . “Ultimately, we’ve seen this happen: the easiest solution is for these employees to end up quitting because they have nowhere to go.”

Similarly, if there is no recorded incident to investigate, the museum cannot be blamed for ignoring a larger issue.

“We continue to proactively invite union leaders to provide specific examples of bullying or to share incidents where workplace culture does not align with our values ​​or offer concrete suggestions on how to change positively the workplace culture at the museum,” the museum wrote in a statement. (The museum recently hired its first Director of Inclusion and Belonging; that employee began work Jan. 31.)

On December 20, union members sent a letter to the museum’s management and demanded that Chen be removed from his position as head of contemporary art. The letter alleges that Chen remains hostile to his colleagues, exhibiting a lack of cooperation, harassment and a lack of professional boundaries.

“These constitute a toxic work environment,” the letter read.

But for the management of the museum, the case is closed.

“The museum has taken appropriate steps to ensure that any proven incident remains isolated and does not happen again in the future,” the museum said in a statement. “The process is quick, thorough and efficient and it has worked here the same way it has worked before when various workplace issues and disputes arise.”

Image of a woman with dark hair down to her chin
Abby Chen was announced as the Asian Art Museum’s first Head of Contemporary Art in 2018. (Courtesy of Asian Art Museum)

A non-traditional approach

When Chen joined the Museum of Asian Art 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 marching band.

Chen was a local art world celebrity, but not an obvious choice for the job. In the statement provided to KQED, the museum now claims that this is precisely why she was recruited for the position: “She brings with her a non-traditional, non-academic and extremely dynamic perspective on the power to elevate the marginalized voices and expand institutional platforms.

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