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Worcester Art Museum sued for discrimination by former curator

Rachel Parikh alleges she was mocked because of her Indian ethnicity.

The Worcester Art Museum on Salisbury Street in Worcester, Mass., Thursday, May 2, 2013. A former curator sued the museum in July 2023 for subjecting her to racism, derision and criticism related to her background as a person of South Asian descent, the suit says.Rick Cinclair/Associated Press

A former curator at the Worcester Art Museum has sued the institution and its leaders for discrimination, alleging she was “mocked and ridiculed because she is a brown-skinned woman of South Asian” descent.

In a lengthy complaint filed last month, Rachel Parikh alleges museum director Matthias Waschek, along with director of curatorial affairs Claire Whitner and others subjected her to a “hostile and offensive work environment and retaliation during her employment at the Worcester Art Museum.”

The complaint, filed in Worcester Superior Court on July 19, goes on to state that Parikh experienced discriminatory treatment in the workplace, alleging her appearance was criticized, her expertise not appropriately recognized, and her concerns about racism dismissed. In addition, she alleges Waschek and his husband, who is not named as a defendant in the suit, mocked her during social gatherings by imitating Indian accents and subjected her to lewd behavior.

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Waschek, who arrived at the Worcester museum in 2011, said he was “dismayed by the false allegations” and “homophobic tropes that are invoked” in the lawsuit, first reported by WBUR.

“As a gay man who has experienced discrimination first-hand, I have always held DEAI issues as a core value,” he said in a statement, using museum shorthand for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. “To read these patently false statements and to see my husband, who doesn’t even work at the Museum, dragged into it and similarly maligned, is staggering.”

The museum hired an outside investigator in May 2022, following Parikh’s complaints of racism and offensive behavior at two social gatherings.

In her report submitted that July, LAM & Associates investigator Laurie Margolies wrote that although she hadn’t been able to corroborate Parikh’s allegations, she found her accusations credible.

Parikh, whose family immigrated from India before she was born, worked as associate curator of the arts of Asia and the Islamic world. She started at the museum in February 2020 and resigned in September 2022, later filing a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

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“The board should have forcefully condemned this behavior in a transparent way, and it did not do so,” said attorney Lana Sullivan, who is representing Parikh in the lawsuit. “It’s really a systemic failure here to appropriately and properly address the behavior.”

Matthias Waschek, museum director of the Worcester Art MuseumErik Jacobs

Attorney David M. Felper, who represents the museum, Whitner, and four board members named in the suit, said the “complaint is filled with unsupported allegations and statements taken out of context.”

“There are two sides to every story, and we will tell ours through the legal process,” Felper said in a statement. “We remain confident that the actual facts and law will clearly show that there is no merit to the claims that were filed.”

The museum said it was aware of the lawsuit and that it had followed protocol by hiring the outside firm to investigate Parikh’s allegations.

“Worcester Art Museum remains committed to providing a workplace where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, so we take these allegations very seriously,” said the museum. “We look forward to addressing these claims through the legal process.”

Waschek has retained independent counsel.

This is not the first time Waschek and the museum he runs have been accused of discrimination. In an earlier court case, Waschek’s former assistant, Janet Manahan, was 66 when she accused the director of “ageist and sexist treatment.”

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The case was eventually settled, but Sullivan, who represented Manahan in the 2015 case, said the museum has had ample time “to be on notice.”

“This has been going on for years,” she said. “The institution has not adequately addressed it, which is why it happened again.”

The independent investigator, Margolies, said in her report that she found Waschek was “a valued Director by many,” who “admits to having some ‘blind spots’ around cultures.”

She added that Parikh was described as “interesting, engaging, amazing and wonderful,” but also said she is “stressed” and “often on her guard for unexpected and unwanted comments.”

Parikh, whom Sullivan said was not available for comment, alleges her appearance was often criticized by Waschek and Whitner.

In one instance in the complaint, she describes a comment allegedly conveyed by Whitner on behalf of Waschek following a presentation to donors: Parikh needed to “zhuzh up” and “look like a curator.”

“Telling the only curator of color at WAM that she needs to ‘look like a curator,’ has both sexist and racial connotations,” the suit alleges, “especially since the curatorial field is predominantly white.”

In a filing responding to Parikh’s MCAD complaint, Waschek’s attorneys disputed the claim, arguing that Waschek was relaying the complaint of a former board president that she “should not be wearing what appeared to be a sweatshirt during presentations to major donors of the Museum.”

“Parikh baselessly claims that she is the only employee to ever be told to dress professionally,” they write, adding the feedback “had no bearing on race, color, national origin, or sex.”

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In other instances, Parikh, who was originally hired as an assistant curator, alleges she was initially denied the more senior title of “associate curator,” a title she argues was granted to subsequent hires with less experience.

Parikh, who was promoted to associate curator in January 2022, said she’d complained the previous fall that “as a woman of color, WAM seemed to hold her to a completely different standard.”

Some of Parikh’s major complaints involve two social gatherings with Waschek and his husband.

Parikh had worked remotely for her first 18 months or so at the museum, in part because of the pandemic. She alleges that during a brunch to welcome her in November 2021, Waschek and his spouse repeatedly mimicked an Indian accent while talking about a sketch comedy show involving Indians living in Britain.

“Mr. Waschek imitated an Indian accent in a falsetto voice while doing the stereotyped Indian head-nod, as he was reciting the character’s line,” the suit alleges, adding the incident was “humiliating and deeply disturbing” to Parikh.

In the MCAD response, both Waschek and his husband “vehemently deny that either of them imitated an Indian accent or performed any kind of Indian head nod.”

At a subsequent dinner party hosted at the couple’s home, Parikh alleges Waschek’s husband showed guests a pillow bearing a copy of Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” a graphic 19th-century painting of a woman’s genital area that Waschek said he wished he could acquire for the museum.

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The “most offensive and violent aspect of the pillow was that the woman’s genitalia were covered in pins,” she alleges in the complaint.

In the MCAD filing, Waschek’s attorneys argue that the pillow, made by a female artist friend, was covered with beads.

The “gathering involved four individuals whose careers revolve around art,” they write in the filing. “In any context, but particularly here, a workplace in which the nude body in art is a regular occurrence, the pillow that depicts a world-famous work of art cannot be deemed to have constituted race, color, sex, or national origin discrimination.”

Parikh goes on to say that the couple later asked her intrusive questions about her family, according to the complaint.

“Parikh felt extremely uncomfortable, offended, and ‘othered,’” the complaint alleges. “She felt like she was on display for their entertainment.”

Waschek recalled the evening differently, alleging in the MCAD filing that many people at the party spoke of their backgrounds in a manner that “could not reasonably [be] considered offensive.”

In her final report, Margolies said she’d “heard of inappropriate incidents” in which senior staff “said nothing, and nothing was done.”

“It was reported that there is no accountability for behaviors, and no safety for staff, particularly women,” she wrote.

After she submitted her report, according to the MCAD filing, the board instructed Waschek to undergo further DEAI training and increase those efforts at the museum.


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him @malcolmgay.