It was a challenging summer at the Worcester Art Museum.
In June, authorities seized a Roman bust that had been in the collection for decades as part of an ongoing smuggling investigation.
In July, a former curator sued the museum, its director Matthias Waschek, and others for discrimination, alleging she was “mocked and ridiculed because she is a brown-skinned woman” and subjected to “a hostile and offensive work environment and retaliation.”
And in August, another former curator, Natalia Vieyra, filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging she faced “retaliation” after filing an internal sexual harassment complaint against Waschek in June.
Museum leadership is “well-aware of Waschek’s history of discrimination, bias, harassment, and retaliation,” the filing states. “At best, they have failed to investigate; at worst, they have aided and abetted this unlawful conduct for years, shamelessly sewing this toxicity into the fabric of the institution.”
Vieyra’s complaint follows former curator Rachel Parikh’s lawsuit, which alleges museum leaders criticized her appearance and Waschek mocked her Indian heritage, imitating stereotypical accents and head movements.
Combined, the filings describe a divided workplace marked by feelings of fear and alleged intimidation. Parikh’s complaint contains a report from an investigator the museum hired to look into some of her claims. The investigator wrote that although she couldn’t confirm Parikh’s allegations, she found them credible, adding they “appeared to fit a pattern” of incidents “that began prior to her arrival at the Museum.” She added: “It was reported that there is no accountability for behaviors, and no safety for staff, particularly women.”
Separately, however, the investigator wrote that many people reported Waschek “is well liked, is charming and valued” at the museum.
Board president Dorothy Chen-Courtin echoed that sentiment, saying Waschek has had a “positive impact, increasing museum attendance, building productive relationships within the community, and putting the museum on more solid financial footing.”
“Matthias and his senior leadership team have made it a priority to improve institutional culture, launching a strategic initiative to enhance Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion,” said Chen-Courtin, who leads the board of more than 20 trustees. “Matthias has also focused resources on building staff capacity to continue to expand the Museum’s collections and elevate its reputation nationally and globally.”
Waschek did not comment on Vieyra’s MCAD filing, but he previously disputed many of Parikh’s claims, calling them “false allegations.”
“As a gay man, I’ve made it a central theme of my life’s work to create open, welcoming, safe and nurturing environments in the organizations I have been privileged to lead,” he said in a statement to the Globe Friday. Waschek previously said that he’s experienced discrimination “first-hand” and has “always held DEAI issues as a core value.”
It’s not the first time the museum has been sued for discrimination: Waschek’s former assistant sued in 2015, accusing him of “ageist and sexist treatment.” The parties ultimately settled the case.
“This has been going on for years,” attorney Lana Sullivan, who brought the 2015 case and now represents Parikh, told the Globe in August. “The institution has not adequately addressed it, which is why it happened again.”
In roughly 20 interviews with the Globe, former museum employees and board members described a stressful workplace, characterizing Waschek as an “intimidating” and “erratic” leader prone to “lashing out” at others for perceived social slights and other offenses.
“It was probably one of the most stressful work experiences I’ve ever had,” said Jessie Olson, who worked as an assistant to the deputy director from 2013 to 2016. “I’d never left a job because I felt physically ill, until then.”
Former board president Catherine Colinvaux said Waschek forced her out following disagreements over governance. She said Waschek would scream at her over the phone and threatened to quit if he had to continue working with her.
“I mean, many decibels, hold the phone away from your head kind of yelling,” said Colinvaux, who stepped down in 2015. “In my view, he became abusive.”
Four former trustees say the board was aware of low workplace morale, and employees have discreetly sought board assistance over the years.
In one instance, a group of employees approached individual trustees anonymously in 2017, requesting an investigation into what they described as museum “mismanagement” that had “resulted in a confusing and toxic work environment,” according to contemporaneous correspondence.
“Nothing really happened” as a result, said Birgit Straehle, a former paintings conservator who was part of the group.
One New York-based former board member said that while trustees were “impressed with [Waschek’s] skills, energy, and vision” they were also frustrated by his frequent disputes with staff and his “with me or against me attitude.”
“There was just constantly conflict,” said the former trustee, who resigned in 2019 and for professional reasons asked to remain anonymous. “There would be this honeymoon period, and then it would sour. It was usually personal. People would leave very disgruntled.”
Straehle, who was on staff from 2006 until 2022, said Waschek made the work environment uncomfortable through his “intimidating” and “erratic” behavior, describing how he once complained to her supervisor that she hadn’t greeted him in public.
“You found yourself constantly distressed,” said Straehle, who now freelances as a conservator and runs an art and event space. “I gave up hope that anything would change.”
Waschek, whose combined compensation totaled more than $400,000 last fiscal year, according to tax documents, said turning around an “underperforming organization” can be difficult. He added, “longtime employees may struggle to adapt to rapid or dramatic changes in policies and culture.”
“I made it known that greeting colleagues with respect and having a positive attitude are central to a healthy work environment,” Waschek said in a statement to the Globe. “I believe some colleagues refused to greet me as a way to challenge the changes I was implementing.”
In one incident from 2018, a conservation fellow alleged Waschek yelled at her when she didn’t say hello to him in the hall.
“He just towered over me and started lashing out,” said the former fellow, Amanda Chau. “He was yelling about, ‘How dare I not acknowledge him properly.’” Chau said it was the first time the director had spoken to her.
Waschek acknowledged to the Globe that “I raised my voice,” saying he later apologized.
Still, even critics say Waschek has many accomplishments as director, elevating the museum’s national profile and setting its financial house in order.
When he arrived in 2011, Waschek inherited a sleepy museum that was struggling financially, drawing around 8 percent on its endowment to cover shortfalls in an $8.5 million operating budget. Today, its operating budget has grown by roughly $4 million, and in fiscal year 2022, the museum received a pair of anonymous gifts totaling $16 million, according to its annual report.
Former board president Lisa Kirby Gibbs called Waschek a “genius” at fund-raising, adding that he revamped the museum, bringing in a “stellar” senior team and board members from outside the Worcester area.
“I had nothing but a constructive, positive, very productive working relationship with Mathias,” said Kirby Gibbs, who stepped down as board president in 2020. “Nobody’s ever doubted the caliber of the collection, but it’s the profile, the reach, and the programming — Matthias just took what they had and amplified it.”
In her MCAD complaint, Vieyra alleges Waschek sexually harassed her during a conversation in April about a collector she’d been trying to cultivate. The filing describes how Vieyra, then a relatively new associate curator who had recently asked for a raise, told Waschek that a joint meeting with Waschek and Vieyra “would likely be a more attractive proposal” to the collector than a meeting with her alone.
At that point, “Waschek turned to Vieyra, looked her up and down … and replied, ‘oh trust me, you are very attractive,’” according to the complaint, which adds that she feared revealing her discomfort “could have an adverse effect on … her salary negotiations.”
Vieyra said she felt “humiliated,” soon discovering she didn’t get the raise and Waschek was “significantly” postponing her main project, actions the complaint deems “retaliation.”
Human resources later declared her claims “unsubstantiated,” as did the board, according to the filing.
Vieyra went on medical leave in late June; she no longer works at the organization.
The museum declined to comment on Vieyra’s MCAD filing, saying it hadn’t been “served” the complaint. In a follow-up email, a spokesperson said “the matter related to Ms. Vieyra ... has been resolved.”
Vieyra declined to comment on the matter.
Colinvaux, the former board president, said one of their central conflicts involved Waschek’s objection to “executive session,” a standard practice that enables trustees to discuss organizational issues without the director present.
She said that after months of conflict, they ultimately struck an agreement: They would communicate only through an intermediary, and she would quietly step down at the end of her second year as president.
“I thought it was in the best interest of the museum,” said Colinvaux. “In hindsight, I don’t know if I made the right choice.”
Colinvaux, who remained on the board until resigning in 2019, emphasized that Waschek has made important contributions as director, adding “his vision and his energy” have significantly improved the museum.
But “the Board is the Director’s boss; no employee should be able to fire their boss,” she said via email, calling it “a recipe for disaster.”
Waschek said he “often disagreed with one board president,” noting that he has worked with five presidents over the years.
“I was hired to turn the organization around,” he said in a statement to the Globe. “I understood my role was to be a change agent, and change can be difficult. I believe that was the situation here.”
The New York-based trustee said board power dynamics shifted in the years after Colinvaux stepped down as president: “At a certain point he was kind of running the board, rather than the board running the museum.”