words and photos by Kyle Cochrun
On July 16, a group assembled in front of the Akron Art Museum to protest its member reopening. (There will be another protest on July 23, the day the museum reopens to the public.) Equipped with a megaphone, signs promoting messages like “Decolonize AAM” and “Resign Resign Resign,” protective face masks and plenty of plastic water bottles, the group rallied in view of patrons and workers passing through the building’s glass lobby.
The protest comes over a year after museum employees sent a letter to the board of directors outlining the institution’s “pervasive culture of race and gender discrimination and bullying which have resulted in a dysfunctional work environment and severely unhealthy turnover rate.” Former employees say that, despite an investigation, the climate at the museum did not improve.
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On May 19, museum director Mark Masuoka resigned. He was replaced by board member Jon Fiume, who is taking on the title of interim director while the board searches for a permanent director. But former employees say change needs to go further: They’re calling on the executive committee of the board of directors to step down.
“After the letter came out, it was clear that their tactic was to control the power,” said Chrissy Marquardt, the museum’s former collections manager and exhibitions registrar, who quit in April after being reduced to part-time.
“They are afraid that the members would have gotten wind of the letter and all the stuff that was happening in the museum and they would vote out the board, because when the members have the power to vote they can do that. But now only the board can remove board members. What do we do in this situation if the board won’t be accountable?”
Following employees’ June 2019 letter and a subsequent investigation, the museum’s board of directors eliminated members’ ability to vote on candidates for board seats.
On July 10, Drew Engles, president of the museum’s board of directors, released a letter to the public, in which he discussed “increas[ing] the inclusiveness of the entire board” and vowed that “the Board will become more proactive” and “will work hard to support the breaking down of the organizational silos that previously existed.” Engles acknowledged calls for his resignation, but wrote, “I too am invested in this process of improvement. I too want to be part of the solution.”
The Akron Art Museum Accountability group, which consists of former Akron Art Museum employees, is unhappy with the museum’s response to worker complaints and the revoking of members’ voting power. In a July 9 press release, the group demanded “a public apology specifically addressing the past and how the Akron Art Museum plans to keep this discriminatory behavior from happening again.”
The document also called for the executive committee to step down, for community and staff representation on the board of directors, and to reinstate voting power to museum members.
At the July 16 protest’s designated start time of 11 am, roughly a dozen protesters formed a line on the curb in front of the museum’s entrance on High Street. Each individual wore a protective mask over their face, and most held signs featuring marker-scribbled statements such as “Museums Are Not Neutral” and “Akron Deserves Better.” The group continually shouted, “Accountability now!”
“I left over disagreements with how our staff was being treated,” said Carol Murphy, who worked at the Akron Art Museum for 12 years.
“I was fired by Mark Masuoka in 2014, and I was kind of a lone wolf. To see these young people out here fighting for their jobs because they spoke up about real allegations of pretty horrendous things, I knew I had to come out and support them. [The board’s] lack of empathy for what has really been horrendous allegations… is very disheartening.”
Murphy also denounced the board’s exclusivity, stating that the museum has essentially become “a rich people’s country club with paintings on the wall.”
The Akron Art Museum did not respond to a request for comment on the protest.
“I’d like the leadership to step down and let new people get in there,” said Max Markwald, a former employee who left the museum in 2018 after six years.
“They’re not doing a good job. They’re not responding to any of the protests. They’re not listening to anybody.”
Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.