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San Diego Museum of Art accused of tolerating sexual harassment, racial inequity

Too often, when the San Diego Museum of Art hosts fund-raising events that feature alcohol, donors drink more than they should and grope female workers, a former museum attendant said in an online complaint that has drawn support from hundreds of people in the past few days.

Instead of protecting employees, Zelina Gaytan wrote, museum officials would blame their staff and resist suggestions that specific policies be adopted to prevent such behavior.

“My words were met with resistance, including trying to pin the problem on my team and I,” Gaytan wrote on a signature drive. “I quite literally had to say, ‘We are not a nightclub, we are not nightclub workers, we should not have to feel unsafe coming to work’.”

The petition, which had drawn more than 700 signatures since it was posted days ago, also accuses San Diego Museum of Art officials of mistreating workers and dismissing concerns voiced by women employees of color.

It demands an apology, formal changes to museum policies and an independent investigation of museum executives — and it urges a boycott until action is taken.

The museum’s executive director, Roxana Velasquez, issued a statement saying the museum will examine the accusations and retain an independent expert to review the situation.

“The safety of all staff members is of paramount importance,” the statement said. “We take each of these allegations very seriously and have hired a third-party group to investigate these claims further.

“Our most important priority is to foster a safe and inclusive environment for all staff,” it added. “We have protocols in place to protect our staff and we enforce them at all levels.”

The staff works to make sure guests who are asked to leave for drinking too can get home safely, the museum said.

“If someone has to be removed, we offer them Uber or ensure they have a ride from one of the people in their party,” the statement said.

Museum officials declined to say whether they would apologize to Gaytan, who worked part time as an attendant for four years before resigning earlier this month.

The museum attendants act as a kind of security, making sure guests do not touch the art or otherwise misbehave, Gaytan said. They also help set up and break down the equipment used for special events.

Gaytan said she was not the only employee who reported sexual harassment and other unwelcome treatment from intoxicated donors, only to witness a lack of response from museum management.

“Not only is it a danger to the community because people leave not able to drive, they have gotten angry with us or they get sexual with us,” said Gaytan, who is 27 and has a degree from the University of California. “It has put us in a very uncomfortable position.”

The Museum of Art statement said the organization provides training every three months that includes protocols for identifying and reporting sexual harassment. They also are advised on how to deal with guests who drink too much.

“We inform staff that if they see anyone who appears to be intoxicated or if they have any issue with anyone, they are to inform management and we will make contact and monitor the person or have them removed,” the museum statement said.

Gaytan said museum attendants are among the lowest-paid and most diverse workers. She said museum leaders rarely promote women of color, and complaints about unequal treatment are not properly considered or acted upon.

“The racial discrimination is all so insidious,” she said. “They do a lot of lip service to progress, but their actions show differently.”

In her petition, Gaytan also said the nonprofit organization should recruit new personnel trained in multicultural and anti-racist methods of resolving conflicts. Many other employees experience microaggressive behavior and other slights from managers, she wrote.

“Many of the workers at the museum feel afraid to speak up because they’re afraid of retaliatory actions like being fired or bullied by leadership,” the petition states.

In addition to issuing a statement to The San Diego Union-Tribune, museum officials posted a statement on their website.

The four-paragraph statement says the museum was saddened to hear the allegations and pledges to consider ways to improve its diversity across its workforce.

“We have also been working with staff to develop institutional commitments to diversity and engage in IDEA (Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility) training,” the news release said.

The Museum said 75 percent of its leadership is White and 25 percent is Latino, while 57 percent of its board is White, 26 percent is Latino, 5 percent is Black and 12 percent was described as “other.”

The San Diego Museum of Art opened on the famed Prado in Balboa Park in the 1920s. It is among the region’s oldest museums and boasts one of the most distinguished collections in the region, including works by internationally renowned artists Salvador Dali, Diego Rivera and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

The organization has about 170 employees and raises and spends more than $10 million a year, according to its most recent federal tax filing.

In the year ending June 30, 2020, the museum spent $1.5 million more than it collected in revenue, but it nonetheless reported total assets of nearly $80 million.

Velasquez was paid more than $410,000 in base salary for the year, tax records show.

In all, Gaytan’s petition generated more than 30 comments from people who signed, including some who pledged to honor the boycott.

Friends and supporters of Gaytan have organized a march through Balboa Park on Saturday at noon in front of the Bea Evenson Fountain, just outside the Fleet Science Center.