Turmoil strikes Boston Athenaeum
Strife has erupted at the Boston Athenaeum, a venerable redoubt of Brahmin culture better known for afternoon teas and Beacon Hill reserve than for workplace clashes that spill into the public realm.
Even as the private library has courted younger members and improved fund-raising, it has been rocked by internal divisions and widespread staff departures: Nearly half of the Athenaeum’s roughly 55 employees have departed in the past 3½ years — a striking turn at an institution where tenure is often measured by the decade.
In more than a dozen interviews, current and former employees, board members, and longtime supporters of the Athenaeum described an institution in turmoil, as director Elizabeth Barker seeks to modernize the tradition-bound library she’s led since October 2014 while being accused of disregarding its essential character and expert staff.
Current and former senior staff describe a “hostile” and “ruthless” administration that undermined their expertise. Beloved colleagues have been fired on the spot and marched out of the building. Others have retired in disgust, giving little or no notice.
Meanwhile, major donors — upset with the library’s fractured morale, its changed mission statement, and fears that its special collections may move off-site — are withholding financial support to register their disapproval. One board member has resigned in protest, going so far as to rescind most of a promised endowment gift of $2 million.
The tumult is extraordinary at the Athenaeum, an elegant private library on Beacon Street whose five galleried floors house a valuable collection of more than 750,000 objects, including paintings by John Singer Sargent, a first edition folio of Audubon’s “The Birds of America,” and sections of the personal library of George Washington, among other rarities.
The difficulties came to a head during a recent six-week span, when all three of the Athenaeum’s senior curators — Catharina Slautterback, Stanley Ellis Cushing, and David Dearinger — left the library, telling the Globe their departures were directly tied to Barker and the unpleasant workplace they say she has fostered.
“The environment there is so toxic,” said Slautterback, who worked at the Athenaeum for 28 years before leaving her post as curator of prints and photographs at the end of January. “Most of the staff lives in daily fear of losing their jobs because so many of their colleagues have been fired or had their positions eliminated.”
In a letter to the Athenaeum’s board of trustees, Dearinger, who served 14 years as its curator of paintings and sculpture, described a “joyless departure.”
“My resignation was the direct result of the on-going mismanagement of the institution’s most valuable resource — its human one,” wrote Dearinger. “[T]he Athenaeum has become a hostile workplace in which members of the staff, fearing derision or retribution, are reluctant to state honest opinions or offer constructive criticisms. The institution has been transformed . . . into one rife with insecurity, distrust, and suspicion; one in which it has become impossible for me to do my job efficiently, effectively, or creatively.”
John Reed, president of the Athenaeum’s board, said he took Dearinger’s letter at “face value” and discussed the matter with Barker, in whom he expressed confidence.
“I’m happy with [Barker]; I think she’s a talented, able person and will be a successful leader of the Athenaeum,” said Reed. “Am I concerned about the allegations? The answer is yes. If the question is: Are we dealing with them? The answer is yes.”
Reed added that to the best of his knowledge the Athenaeum’s work environment is “quite okay,” but the board plans to survey staff to get a better sense of the situation.
“We’ve not in any sense dismissed it: There’s some substance here that we should look into,” said Reed. “We are concerned there may be some inappropriate behavior, and I’ve been talking to [Barker] about management.”
Barker pushed back on allegations that the Athenaeum had become a hostile workplace, expressing confidence in its future.
“I recognize that change can be hard, but I think the hardest part of that change is behind us,” she said. “I’m so proud of the progress our staff has made in moving from a workplace culture based on hierarchy to more of a team approach, in which we all pitch in and every voice is welcomed and respected.”
When she arrived at the Athenaeum, Barker, who goes by “Lizzie,” was widely seen as a breath of fresh air, an energetic director with a mandate to bring the 210-year-old institution more in line with the city’s contemporary cultural community. Barker has a doctorate in art history and previously ran the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, where she increased the museum’s endowment and raised its public profile, doubling its opening hours.
“Her youthful vision and vitality promise fresh eyes on opportunities ahead,” Deborah Hill Bornheimer, the Athenaeum’s then-board president, said when announcing Barker’s hire. “Those of us who love the Athenaeum feel Dr. Barker is an exceptional person who can lead the institution to new heights.”
By some measures, Barker, 47, has undeniably succeeded. In 3½ years as director, she has dramatically increased the library’s range of programming, offering everything from expanded children’s events to pop-up discussions on timely issues and martini movie nights targeted at younger patrons.
Barker provided figures showing that contributions, gifts, and grants are up roughly 28 percent to nearly $1.2 million, and the endowment has grown more than 6 percent to roughly $90 million, since fiscal 2013. Though memberships are down from a recent peak to around 4,500, she said member visits have increased nearly 35 percent since fiscal 2013.
“The picture here is strong,” said Barker. “It can be challenging to please everyone, and change really is hard, but I’m confident that the more we communicate what is truly happening, so much of it is so commonsensical that it will be supported.”
She added that many of the departed staff were entry-level, left for new opportunities, or were “of retirement age” when they resigned, a turnover she described as “not out of course.” She said the library is building “a really extraordinary team.”
“I want to support a culture where everyone is excited about what they’re doing, and be much more excited to contribute to an effort than to kvetch about it around the water cooler,” said Barker. “I appreciate the extraordinary contributions of those [departed] colleagues. . . . They’ve built such an attractive legacy.”
Barker declined to discuss specific staffing issues, saying she was “surprised and disappointed” when Dearinger resigned. She said Slautterback gave “months of notice” and Cushing, who retired last December, announced his retirement 12 months in advance.
“It would be a shame to aggregate that into one pattern,” said Barker. “It would be a shame for a matter of timing to be presumed as a collective effort.”
In interviews, however, the curators described their departures in starker terms.
Slautterback, who is using up vacation days before her employment formally ends in March, said she continues to do some work at the Athenaeum.
“I would never have thought that I’d leave under these circumstances,” she said. “There are no successors for us. We haven’t been able to groom anyone.”
Cushing, a 47-year veteran who was curator of rare books and manuscripts, said he’d planned to retire in a few years, but he moved the date up because of the difficult workplace climate.
“It was sad to see my friends being battered,” said Cushing. “The Athenaeum’s been such an important and central part of my life, I couldn’t imagine leaving, but seeing my friends so unhappy and the tone of the place changing, it made me think I probably could pull myself away.”
Cushing said that although he was treated well by Barker, he was often sidelined on major decisions.
“Which made no sense, because I’d been there the longest, I had the biggest budget, and I knew the most about the place,” said Cushing. “The problem is she doesn’t understand the unique qualities of the Athenaeum, which has been a very civilized place of learning, thought, and careful writing.”
Dearinger said he left after being cut out of meetings and hiring and firing decisions pertaining directly to his department. “That was a total negation of my expertise, professionalism, and opinion,” said Dearinger. “To end my career like this, it’s too bad. It’s not how I envisioned it. That’s just how bad it was.”
All three curators also cited the departures of longtime colleagues, including deputy director James Reid-Cunningham, facilities director Michael Pagliaro, and John Lannon, an associate director and curator of maps who was fired and escorted out of the building.
Reid-Cunningham was unsentimental about his dismissal, considering it a changing of the guard: “It was pretty clear that because I was the number two I’d be gone.”
Lannon called his own sudden firing after 40 years an “absolutely bizarre” experience.
He said he was let go after a storage-room wall became damp from a rainstorm. The problem was well known and not an immediate threat, he said, but Barker was alarmed.
“[She] said, ‘John this is an emergency. You didn’t come to me immediately, so I’m going to relieve you of your duties,’” recalled Lannon, who said he was instructed to take what he needed from his office. “I was still in a state of shock. Then I was escorted to the front door.”
Pagliaro said he resigned without giving notice last February after receiving a memo critical of his work.
“I said to myself they’re not walking me out like that,” said Pagliaro, who during his 25 years at the Athenaeum worked his way up from a security job to a key post. “I felt like I was being forced out.”
The library recently hired Georgetown University’s John Buchtel to fill Cushing’s position, which will be expanded to oversee the other special collections. Buchtel arrives in June. Meanwhile the Athenaeum’s three main curatorial departments remain leaderless.
“We represent most of the accumulated knowledge,” said Cushing. “It’s a shame to think that the place will not have the benefit of that knowledge.”
Barker said she was waiting for Buchtel to fill the positions. “He has really good experience at building teams, and it’s important that he be given the ability to spread his wings and build that team here,” said Barker.
But the staffing turmoil has upset many longtime supporters, who also cite other problems.
Particularly troubling, they say, has been the Athenaeum’s approach in its search for additional space. In recent years it has looked at a variety of options, including housing the special collections, and perhaps even some curators, at a storage facility in Somerville, or occupying other satellite buildings around Boston, including one adjacent to the Athenaeum.
The Somerville idea prompted an outraged e-mail from board member Anne Bromer, who resigned in protest.
“We are not stronger cut in half,” Bromer wrote in the 2017 e-mail, forwarded to the Globe by a recipient, in which she accused leadership of “promoting” the off-site option. “Moving Special Collections away with its professional curators would be expensive as well as a dilution of everything sacred about the place.”
The notion of moving the special collections also rankled some of the Athenaeum’s proprietors, a group of about 1,000 shareholders.
“The membership found it unthinkable,” said one former board member, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. “The special collections are the beating heart and soul, the history of the library. . . . It’s like saying the Louvre is a great museum, but let’s move ‘Winged Victory’ off site to a vault that’s hard to access. The special collections are our ‘Winged Victory.’ ”
Both Barker and Reed stressed that storing the special collections in Somerville was just an idea under consideration. “It was never a plan,” said Barker.
Adding to some members’ concerns is the Athenaeum’s changed mission statement, which no longer mentions books, art, or the library’s historic building, describing the Athenaeum simply as a “center for collections and cultural activities that serves members and those who can benefit from our resources.”
Reed said the changed mission statement does not reflect a broader shift in priorities, adding in a later interview that the board would “clarify” the statement.
Nevertheless, the upheaval has caused several longtime patrons to withdraw financial support.
Bromer, who along with her husband, David, promised a gift of $2 million in 2012 to endow the position of curator of rare books and manuscripts, has since rescinded the remainder of the pledge.
Several proprietors said they will no longer contribute to the library’s annual fund.
“I don’t see myself coming back into the fold until [Barker’s] replaced,” said one proprietor who’s given more than $100,000. “They’ve gone to the extreme. Nobody knows where it’s going. It’s too drastic.”
Another proprietor, who routinely gives more than $5,000 annually, said withholding donations to the annual fund was “the only way to get their attention.”
“They really have let the three biggest assets walk out the door,” she said. “My complaint lies not only with the director, but with the board.”
Reed said the Athenaeum’s annual fund remains healthy. “The annual fund has not shown that there’s a widespread withholding of money. It could come, but it hasn’t yet.”
Trustee emeritus Alexander Altschuller said that while some donors were unhappy, he may donate portions of his own book collection when the time comes.
“All these cultural institutions are having inflections and difficulties,” said Altschuller. “I’m a traditionalist, but I see the need to change if we’re going to survive.”