Exterior of the front of the Akron Art Museum.

‘A preventable disaster:’ Akron Art Museum employees, former chairman say museum’s leaders let them down

by Noor Hindi and Rosalie Murphy

UPDATE:In an email to employees Tuesday, May 19, the Akron Art Museum announced director Mark Masuoka’s resignation effective immediately. Board member Jon Fiume will step in as interim. He’s a local arts advocate who was most recently COO of Mustard Seed Market & Cafe. The board also announced the search for a permanent director will include board members, museum staff and community leaders. The museum will also hire a search firm for the process. Check back for details as we learn more.

During the last week, The Devil Strip has spoken to more than a dozen former Akron Art Museum employees who worked in a variety of departments at a variety of levels throughout Mark Masuoka’s seven-year tenure as director of the museum.

Uniformly, they described an institution lacking in vision and open communication — both before and after June 2019, when 27 art museum employees sent a letter to the Board of Directors alleging instances of racism, sexism and mismanagement from the museum’s top leadership. 

The board hired a law firm to investigate the allegations. Shortly thereafter, two senior employees — who were described in the letter as creating an environment where women and people of color were belittled — left the museum. 

Despite their departure, employees say the climate of the museum did not improve. 

“We tried to do the right thing. We tried to tell the board. We tried to keep this from the press… It’s our duty to go to the board and do the right thing before we start damaging the reputation of the institution,” says Chrissy Marquardt, who joined the museum in January 2017 as Collections Manager and Exhibitions Registrar. “We want this institution to be serving the community in the way it should be. So that was maybe our fault, for having too much faith in the board, but we wanted them to do the right thing… And that’s why we’re here with the press. Because a year later, it’s worse than it’s ever been.” 

“This was a preventable disaster,” adds Rick Rogers, a former chairman of the board and a major donor to the museum, in an open letter published today. “When I learned of the brewing troubles with the staff in June of 2019 I made repeated attempts in writing and in person to express my concerns to the board’s executive committee. It fell on deaf ears… The board ignored the pleas of their staff and advice from past funders and trustees. Now the result is ruined careers, departure of talent, rock-bottom morale, flight of donors and sullying of the museum’s impeccable reputation.” 

The museum declined to comment on the letter from Rogers.

Under director Mark Masuoka, AAM is losing staff and lacking vision, employees say

Mark Masuoka joined the Akron Art Museum in 2013. Very few staff members have remained at the museum throughout his tenure. Former employees say turnover at AAM is exceptionally high among full-time staff, especially in a region without many jobs available in museums.

“There are not a lot of museum jobs, and usually people stick around in museum jobs,” Marquardt says. “That’s just the way it is. You don’t leave these jobs unless you have another job or it’s just something you cannot tolerate anymore.” 

An archived version of the museum website’s staff page lists 26 employees on April 1, 2014. Only five of those 26 people were listed on the staff page on May 6. 

While they were working at AAM, employees say Masuoka was distant, failed to communicate a clear vision, failed to invest in talented employees and failed to create an environment open to collaboration.

Every detail included in this story that is not attributed to a specific employee was corroborated by at least two sources. 

Masuoka made insensitive comments about Akron’s communities of color, staffers say. In the letter staff members sent to the board, they describe a conversation about the Inside/Out program, which brought pop-up museum exhibits to Akron neighborhoods. (The program was developed in the education department under the leadership of Alison Caplan, whose March 2019 firing encouraged staff to begin organizing.) 

According to the letter, when a staff member suggested a program that would allow visitors to interact with artwork via their smartphones, Masuoka said: “I mean, really, how many people in Akron actually have access to a cell phone? And if they do, it’s probably a gangster throwaway phone.” 

Two former employees told The Devil Strip that, during his first week as director, Masuoka converted the staff break room into his office. The break room, which used to have a large table where staff from different departments met for brainstorming sessions, was replaced with a break room a quarter of the size.

According to the letter staff members sent the board in 2019, the facilities staff — by far the most diverse department in the museum — were told by then-facilities manager Craig Arnold, under the direction of then-chief of staff Jennifer Shipman, that “they should no longer enter the staff break room, and they should instead take their breaks in the boiler room.”

At right: The boiler room where facilities staff took breaks. (Photo provided by a former employee.)

The letter also alleges that, throughout the museum, women were treated differently than men.  

Carol Murphy worked at the Akron Art Museum from 1996 until 2007, where she led fundraising for the construction of the new building. In 2013, shortly after Masuoka was hired, she returned as development director. “There were red flags to me from the very beginning,” Murphy says. 

Shortly after she was hired, Murphy says Masuoka told her about two women he wanted to fire, neither of whom reported to her. Murphy says Masuoka insisted that she join him for the first firing, then take care of the second herself. 

“They were both very strong women, as am I. And I do say, in retrospect, that is not a good combination for that man,” Murphy says. “If you disagree with him, forget it. That was my downfall, too.”

Murphy says she was fired in 2015 for failing to meet fundraising goals. Afterward, she began working at SPACES, a Cleveland gallery. She says Masuoka called the gallery’s executive director to warn them not to hire her. 

Former employees say the museum environment rapidly changed after Alison Caplan’s firing in March 2019, however.

Two museum staffers recall a meeting between Masuoka and staff in spring 2019 at which Masuoka stated, “You’re either with me or against me.” Meetings became “adversarial” and employees say they began to feel threatened. 

At right: Crowe at Family Day in June 2019. (Photo provided by Crowe.)

In June, Masuoka berated educator for family and children’s programs Amanda Crowe in front of patrons and a representative of PNC, a sponsor, at a Family Day event, the employees’ letter alleges. In a subsequent meeting, Crowe says Masuoka told her that she had put families at risk by letting them play on the grass, which he said had recently been fertilized with “cancer-causing” chemicals. Crowe says she spoke to the facilities manager, who confirmed that no such chemicals had been applied to the grass; and that in photos from the event, the signs Masuoka said bordered the lawn were not there.

On May 7, The Devil Strip asked the art museum to respond to three of the letter’s allegations: That Masuoka told the staff, “you’re either with me or against me;” that he described residents’ “gangster throwaway phones,” and that he berated Crowe at Family Day. The museum’s response simply declined to comment on Rick Rogers’s letter, which we did not ask about.

The Devil Strip also spoke with three people who worked in Omaha during Masuoka’s tenure as Director of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. They described a similar work environment to that detailed by former AAM employees. All requested to speak on background due to fear of professional retaliation. 

“Of the people that I know who worked with Mark before, during or after my time there… many had encounters with him that echo what the staff at the Akron Art Museum have made public,” says a former Bemis Center employee. “Many talented and passionate staff members either left the organization because of his treatment, or were pushed out. Many of them — perhaps most of them — were women or people of color. Many others just pushed through because they had to… If you worked in the arts, there wasn’t really any place else for you to go.” 

Jessica Fijalkovich, who oversaw the Akron Art Library program, says that throughout 2019, the museum continued a process it had already begun: phasing out department heads and placing responsibility in the hands of the director’s office. By early summer, both the education and curatorial departments were without directors.

Former employees say that after the law firm ended its investigation, its findings were shared with them in a phone call. Employees say they were not provided with written copies of the report. (According to text messages circulated among the staff while listening to the phone call, the investigation found Crowe’s allegation about Masuoka berating her on Family Day credible.)

The Board of Directors released a public statement on May 4, pointing out that “several of the claims raised [by the letter] were not substantiated.” The statement did not offer any additional specifics about the letter’s allegations. 

A museum spokesperson wrote in an email: “In June 2019, an anonymous memorandum of concerned employees’ workplace issues, some of which were not current even at the time, was directed to the Akron Art Museum’s Board of Directors. The Board took the concerns raised in the memo seriously and retained a third-party employment law firm to conduct a prompt and comprehensive investigation. That investigation was completed shortly thereafter and, where appropriate, actions were taken to address any substantiated concerns. Akron Art Museum does not publicly comment on personnel matters and we will have no further comment on the investigation, its findings or actions taken.”

Photo: The Devil Strip archive.

Former board chair disappointed in current leadership

When employees contacted the board last summer, Marquadt says they were hopeful: “The board responded almost immediately. It really did feel in the moment that they were going to do the right thing,” she says. 

The board hired Kastner Westman & Wilkins LLC, an Akron-based employment law firm, to conduct an investigation. The firm interviewed employees one-on-one, seeking to preserve their anonymity. In early August, employees say the firm gathered the staff for a conference call and reviewed the letter point by point, explaining which claims were substantiated and which were not. 

The Devil Strip contacted eight members of the museum’s board of directors during the last week. Those who replied to our inquiries either declined to speak or referred questions to the museum’s marketing department. 

Board president Drew Engels wrote in a statement released Monday: “All the allegations raised in late June 2019 by way of the anonymous employees’ memorandum were taken seriously. Independent employment law experts were retained by the Museum Board within two days and every concern raised was carefully, thoroughly and confidentially investigated. The anonymity of every concerned employee was preserved throughout the process.  Prompt, appropriate and specific actions were then taken by the Museum Board to comprehensively and directly address any substantiated allegations. Several of the claims raised were not substantiated. As such an investigation involves personnel files, there are rights of privacy that the Museum will not breach. Furthermore, the Museum will not engage in any form of public disclosure even if doing so would be to the benefit of our reputation.

“The investigation did allow for introspection into our procedures, policies and culture. Upon its conclusion last August 1, the Museum management has worked hard to increase and bolster human resource visibility and systems, hiring a specifically dedicated human resource manager as well as planning for and initiating a series of training sessions. In early February, management conducted an anti-bias training session for a group of employees as the first in this planned series for all employees, which includes sexual harassment and communications skills.  This will resume when the Museum staffing allows.”

Jennifer Shipman and Craig Arnold, two managers whose conduct was criticized in the employees’ letter, left the museum in summer 2019. In February 2020, employee Maggie Duff attended the first anti-bias training session. “We didn’t talk about anything going on in the department during that training. It was very hypothetical,” they say. 

Several employees told The Devil Strip they didn’t understand why the board hadn’t taken action prior to their letter since many full-time staff members had left the museum under Masuoka’s tenure. 

“It was a strange phenomenon where all these people who were super dedicated to the museum and the institution, and people who had long-standing employment there — [them] quitting didn’t raise red flags to the board,” says Roza Maille, who led the education department’s Inside/Out initiative until 2016.

“The board (primarily the executive committee) needs to be held accountable,” writes Rick Rogers. “The root cause of this fiasco is bad board leadership, lack of enforcement of good governance, and failure to follow proven best practices like board orientation and training, a human resource function, and routine review of the executive director.” 

The Devil Strip also contacted several of the museum’s institutional funders. Tracy Burt of the Akron Community Foundation wrote in an email: “It’s interesting timing for us as next week our community investment committee will meet to decide on our arts & culture grant recipients for the year. The allegations against their leadership will certainly be a topic of conversation during those deliberations.”

The Knight Foundation — which endows Masuoka’s position as John S. Knight Chair and CEO of the museum — declined to comment, as did the GAR Foundation.

Editor’s note: In 2019, the Knight Foundation made an investment of $200,000 over two years in The Devil Strip to support our transition to a co-op ownership structure.

‘Changes need to be made’

Shipman and Arnold left the museum in summer 2019. But the leadership positions in the education and curatorial departments were not filled. Instead, employees say they continued reporting to the director’s office, which included Masuoka and Seema Rao, who joined the museum as Consumer Experience Director in June. 

Photo at right and header photo: Shane Wynn via Akronstock.

Masuoka was noticeably absent from the museum after the investigation concluded, employees say. Chrissy Marquardt recalls: “The joke among the staff was, ‘does Mark work here?’” 

Rather than helping to add structure to the museum, Rao’s promotion created additional confusion, employees say. 

“We were flat-out told that we were going to become ‘department-agnostic,’” Crowe says. “That was confusing because we already were — we didn’t have [a director of education], we didn’t have [a head curator]. We just felt like we were building this plane but yet we were trying to get off the runway.” 

Rao was promoted after five months as chief experience officer, assuming the additional title of deputy director. 

“Jen [Shipman] left the museum, and that power structure was still in place. Seema Rao was brought on as the chief experience officer… But she quickly moved into what was Jen’s role at the museum. We didn’t have the department heads, and Seema was absorbing all this power, overseeing the curatorial department, the education experience and marketing departments — which is very strange in a museum setting, where you have department heads who are experts in that area overseeing their department and advocating for their staff’s needs,” says Fijalkovich.

A number of former employees described Rao as someone who walked into a chaotic environment and, as Jane Balog described, “wanted to fix everything all at once.” (Balog left the museum in March after two years on staff.) But several former employees say that Rao has berated them to the point of tears.

Rao directed questions to the museum’s marketing department.

“In light of the recent revelations, I expected the prompt resignation of the current management team and a fresh approach,” Rogers says. “It’s my understanding that the board plans to leave this team in place. Pretending that everything is fine with the museum is not working. Changes need to be made. Somebody needs to have the courage to make them, as painful as that may be.” 

Reach Noor Hindi at noor@thedevilstrip.com and Rosalie Murphy at rosalie@thedevilstrip.com

Editor’s note: Chris Harvey, who joined The Devil Strip in March 2020 as Art Director, was formerly an employee of the Akron Art Museum and has been quoted in other publications about his experience there. The Devil Strip’s journalists did not interview Harvey for this piece, nor did he see it before publication.