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Acclaimed Art Museum Deals With Fallout Over Sexual Assault Scandal


The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh has a reputation as a pioneer an installation art. This year, the museum took a serious hit. Employees made allegations of workplace sexual misconduct and assault and said managers mishandled those claims. Now, the Mattress Factory is trying to rebuild its reputation, as Bill O'Driscoll of member station WESA reports.

BILL O'DRISCOLL, BYLINE: In February, a Mattress Factory employee told the museum's co-director that five women employees had been sexually harassed, assaulted and even raped by a male coworker. The victim of the alleged rape says it took place off museum grounds in 2013.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I repeatedly told him to stop, and he wouldn't stop.

O'DRISCOLL: The woman spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. At the time of the alleged attack, she was 22. And like many sexual assault victims, she didn't report the incident to anyone at the time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was too afraid to because it's just so common that people don't believe women in this position or even men in this position.

O'DRISCOLL: Early this year after being told of the allegations, the museum investigated. But for reasons still unclear, the only outcome was that the accused perpetrator was required to attend sexual harassment training. Employees were deeply disappointed, including the staffer who first reported the allegations. She too alleged sexual assault and wishes to remain anonymous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I would say I felt crushed because I felt like they weren't doing anything about it.

O'DRISCOLL: The accused perpetrator left the Mattress Factory in May, but the museum remains in turmoil. In late September, four employees filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging the museum retaliated against staffers who protested how it handled the allegations with verbal abuse and rescinded work assignments. Soon after, the museum's executive director, who'd worked there nearly four decades, was put on paid leave. And at least one funder has announced it's reviewing next year's planned allocation for the institution.

JUDITH O'TOOLE: This is a very difficult situation for the museum.

O'DRISCOLL: That's Judith O'Toole, the veteran museum administrator just named the Mattress Factory's acting director. She acknowledges people have lost trust in the institution.

O'TOOLE: We understand the public concern. And I've even seen notices on Facebook where people are hesitant to attend the museum during this time.

O'DRISCOLL: Nonprofit arts groups often have a hard time handling accusations of sexual misconduct, says Kevin Maifield, an arts management expert based in Seattle. One reason is limited resources.

KEVIN MAIFELD: We tend not to have big HR departments - sometimes no HR departments. We've just not protected ourselves the way that we need to.

O'DRISCOLL: The Mattress Factory did not have a dedicated HR staffer until a consultant was hired in June, says Acting Director Judith O'Toole. She says the institution is now training its managers how to respond to such incidents in the future. And it's revised its outdated employee manual to specifically address sexual misconduct. And the institution's board of directors also plays a key role, says Maifeld.

MAIFELD: There just needs to be a very clear message to the community. We are on this. We are actively taking care of it. We don't want this to happen again. We want to protect our employees - because this is a perfect reason for a donor to walk away.

O'TOOLE: But Kathryn Heidemann, director of the Master of Arts Management program at Carnegie Mellon University, says such situations are also an opportunity for donors to come closer and help arts groups function better.

KATHRYN HEIDEMANN: The philanthropic community has done a great job, I think, in recent years of providing capacity and building grants in the arena of marketing and fundraising. But we would love to see something like this further explored in the area of human resource management.

O'DRISCOLL: The Mattress Factory is not alone. Over the past year, other high-profile nonprofit arts groups have also been upended by alleged sexual misconduct, including New York's Metropolitan Opera and The Jewish Museum. Maifeld says that with a shock this big, change is inevitable.

MAIFELD: I guarantee you - with the Mattress Factory, this is going to change them forever. This will change their culture. It will change how they train employees. So you know, it's sad that it takes an event like this to get an organization's attention.

O'DRISCOLL: For NPR News, I'm Bill O'Driscoll in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF GREYBOY'S "BIG TITO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bill O'Driscoll