Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Challenges for front-of-house staff & mgt

Michael Koziol, Museum of Contemporary Art accused of ‘toxic culture’ in workplace stoush, The Age, 26 July 2020

It is an iconic Sydney arts institution that presides over Circular Quay, boasts some of the city’s biggest names on its board and brings in revenue of $23 million a year.

But the Museum of Contemporary Art has been accused of allowing a “toxic culture” to fester within its walls, with former staff members speaking out about their perceived mistreatment, and a current employee taking her case to the Industrial Relations Commission.

The museum has been in damage control for weeks after a former staffer wrote about her “traumatic experience” while working as a trainee and a gallery host, alleging she had been badgered about her appearance and accused of “cheating” her way into the job by misrepresenting her circumstances.

In the post, published on Medium, Chinese-Australian artist Lilly Lai argued the MCA failed to properly handle reports of “blatant racism or verbal abuse from visitors”, and lacked policies to protect people of colour. Ms Lai conceded in the piece that her performance had “been getting poorer and poorer”, and she frequently called in sick.

The essay prompted long-serving MCA director Liz Ann McGregor to issue an all-staff email defending the museum’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and “providing a safe workplace and culture free from racist, sexist, homophobic and all discriminatory behaviour”.

Former gallery host Lilly Lai wrote a critical essay about her experience at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The disquiet comes at a critical time for the museum as it emerges from its COVID-19 closure. The absence of weddings and other events has put a major dent in the MCA’s revenue, with job cuts likely. On Tuesday, art collector and former investment banker Lorraine Tarabay will formally take over as board chair from corporate adviser Simon Mordant, who announced earlier in the year that he was standing down after 10 years in the role.

One of Ms Tarabay’s first acts will be to address museum staff, particularly the young crop of casual hosts who are its main conduit with the public.

Host Anni-Jane Linklater, through the Australian Workers’ Union, has lodged proceedings with the Industrial Relations Commission contending the museum broke the law by taking disciplinary action against her over an email she sent to colleagues and posts on social media.

The email, sent from Ms Linklater’s Gmail account, was titled “Chairmageddon and other issues”. This refers to an ongoing dispute in the museum about the provision of chairs for MCA gallery hosts, who are required to stand up throughout their shifts, as per many museums worldwide.

Ms Linklater wrote that she was going to “light the fuse” and “initiate chairmageddon”. Case files sent to The Sun-Herald show the MCA argued those phrases were disrespectful, unprofessional, threatening and intimidating, and issued a “final warning letter”. Ms Linklater also claims she was removed from a roster of back-up team leaders.

SafeWork NSW initially found in Ms Linklater’s favour, but this was overturned after the museum asked for a review. The union has now taken the case to the IRC, arguing the MCA discriminated against Ms Linklater for performing her duties as a health and safety representative.

On social media, Ms Linklater also wrote comments supporting Ms Lai’s very critical post about her experience at the MCA, thanking her for “speaking truth to power”.

She was not alone. Former MCA host Soo-Min Shim posted a link to the article on her Facebook, adding: “The two years I spent as an MCA host … really damaged my mental health. Pls read this. [MCA] is institutionalised racism at its finest.”

The Sun-Herald spoke to another former MCA host who left the job last year. She did not want her name published, but claimed some managers displayed an “aggressive” and “dismissive” attitude toward staff complaints, and that hosts felt isolated in the gallery with “no support”.

“Any problems we would bring up were generally met with an attitude of us being problems and bringing the museum into disrepute,” she said.

However, Ms McGregor, the MCA director, disputed these claims. She said while she could not comment on confidential personnel issues, Ms Linklater had breached the museum’s code of conduct, internet policy and social media use policy.

Ms McGregor said the MCA had “an inclusive, welcoming and positive culture which encourages constructive dialogue with staff about all issues of concern”, and zero tolerance for any form of discrimination.

Last year the MCA’s staff survey returned an overall satisfaction rate of 85 per cent, and 77 per cent for casual staff. The museum said it was implementing measures to address concerns about specific issues such as communication.

The museum also said it was investigating another “allegation of racism” made anonymously on social media, which it became aware of on Thursday. It did not give details but said its Indigenous Advisory Group chair Christine Evans had been made aware of the issue.

“MCA staff are treated fairly and equitably with all incidents taken very seriously and investigated in line with MCA policies,” Ms McGregor said in a statement.

“We are especially proud of our front of house team, whose professionalism, customer service and knowledge are regularly praised by our visitors. We are conscious that they can face difficult situations and have a rigorous training programme and methods to support them in place.

“The MCA is committed to continuous improvement, particularly with regard to diversity and inclusion, and we are seeking staff feedback as to how the MCA can better support the wellbeing of our staff and artists of colour.”

But to the Australian Workers’ Union, which is bringing Ms Linklater’s case to the IRC, the number of complaints is indicative of a broader problem at the MCA. National secretary Daniel Walton said it was odd to see an organisation react “in such a brittle and defensive way” to routine workplace issues.

“We represent members on some of the toughest worksites in Australia – from offshore oil rigs, to steel mills, to civil construction. But rarely do we encounter a toxic culture comparable to what we see at the MCA,” he said.

“This idea that low-paid workers at the MCA should keep their mouths shut and just be grateful to be accepted as ‘part of the arts scene’ needs to end.

“The MCA claims it believes in equity and supports the ideas of others. It’s clearly just a show they put on, because behind closed doors a much darker picture emerges.”

A position description on the MCA website says gallery hosts are paid $27.96 an hour, and $33.55 an hour on Sundays, plus superannuation.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2020
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