The (Maine) Potato Eaters

Serfdom amid splendor at the Portland Museum of Art

“The Potato Eaters,” Vincent Van Gogh, 1885.

“Art is a way for us to talk about the most important things about being human.”

Jennifer DePrizio, former Peggy L. Osher Director of Learning and Interpretation at the Portland Museum of Art, as quoted on the spine of the September 2017 issue of Maine magazine

Tanner Skilton grew up in northern Vermont and worked at a summer camp in Maine. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Salve Regina University, in Rhode Island, he wanted to live in a city, but New York and Boston seemed too big. Portland was just the right size.

He got an apartment with a roommate on High Street and worked a temp job before he was hired, in 2015, by the Portland Museum of Art as a “visitor experience team leader,” greeting and assisting patrons at the front desk. A year later, he was promoted to the position of Visitor Experience Supervisor and Lead Ambassador and given a raise that brought his hourly pay to $13.46 an hour.

The promotion “was pitched to me in a very superficial way, that you’ll be like the face of the museum, which is a classification for paying me very low,” Skilton told me during an interview earlier this summer at a local coffee shop. “My top boss, the director of the museum, made more than ten times what I made, which is very eyebrow-raising in a nonprofit,” he noted.

Skilton, who identifies with the LGBTQ community* and has a bold fashion sense, resigned from the museum last summer after being verbally accosted by a visitor who took offense to his clothing, called him a “faggot,” and threatened to have him fired and to “expose” him on social media. This incident was the final and most serious instance of what had been a pattern of harassment and disparagement that Skilton experienced from museum visitors and staff. Although other members of the museum’s management team took the “faggot” incident very seriously — one security staffer thought they should report it to police — Skilton said the top administrator involved, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Jones, who was then the Director of Audience Engagement and Communications, was only superficially sympathetic to him and was blasé about the proper response.

“‘It’s really unfortunate what happened to you today, Tanner, but no, we’re not gonna call the police,’” Jones said, according to Skilton, during what the PMA termed an “emergency meeting” convened after the incident. “‘All that we can do is thank him for his feedback and allow him his First Amendment right.’”

“All I heard over and over again in my head for days after that is, Thank him for his feedback,” Skilton said. “You literally are thanking someone who just harassed your worker.”

The PMA disputes some details of Skilton’s account. For example, it said the visitor who called to harass Skilton was not a dues-paying member of the PMA, as Skilton believed he was, and that when Skilton’s immediate boss, the Visitor Experience Manager, contacted the man, she “found discrepancies between Tanner’s account and the caller’s.” (Those alleged discrepancies were not described.)

Last summer, Skilton took a job with IDEXX Laboratories, doing biomedical sales, and is still happily employed at that Westbrook-based multinational corporation. The differences between the way he’s being treated (and compensated) at IDEXX compared to his experience at the PMA have been surprising to Skilton. “I came to the museum to live this young-professional, engaged lifestyle, and it totally backfired all over me,” he said. “Now I work for a big, bad, publicly traded, for-profit company that is seemingly one of those that gets vilified. In comparison with [the PMA], this company gives me a respectable, livable wage; enough time during the year, paid, to spend time with my friends and family; and they protect me from situations like this [harassment].

“This would never happen at [IDEXX], ever,” Skilton continued. “If anyone treated me the way this [visitor] treated me … I would be supported. We have on-staff life coaches to debrief. None of this happens at the museum, and I feel like I have suffered mental and professional damage that I’m trying to get over on my own. I’m a very independent person, but I probably should have, and maybe should still, seek professional help.”

“A really important quote that I try to live my life by every single day is that ‘Pain is part of life. Pain is always going to be there. But suffering is a choice,’” Skilton told me. “I’ve suffered for a year because of this. I cried over this, I almost went viral with anger and all these horrible emotions, and I’m so done with the suffering. The painful memories will probably never go away, and I would say that I am professionally marked from that, but I wanted to tell my story so that I could get over my suffering and so the next young guy or girl that decides, ‘I think I’m going to work at this awesome institution,’ knows what they’re getting into.”

Skilton said he felt compelled to make his pain public after seeing The Bollard’s recent exposé on Maine Media Collective (the former publisher of Maine magazine, Maine Home + Design and other titles) and the PMA’s response to that article. The museum’s top management had developed a close relationship with the now disgraced media company, and shared, promoted and financially supported (to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars annually) its elitist attitude toward Maine and its people.

“One of our major goals at the museum is to frame the narrative of the state so that arts and culture — as well as the incredible people who create it — are as critical to Maine’s identity as its natural beauty, and a reason to visit or live here unto itself,” Jones declared in a “Note from the PMA” published in the September 2017 issue of Maine, which was billed on the cover as “The PMA Issue.” “Maine [sic] magazine has the same mission,” Jones added. “That’s why we are so excited for this special issue.”

Despite this mutual self-regard, it seems likely that Jones and others at the top of the PMA pyramid had at least some inkling that MMC was a cesspool of lust, greed, misery and fear before we brought the situation to light in “Mean Magazine.” The PMA publicly severed its long and lucrative relationship with MMC just hours after our May issue hit the streets on April 26, the same day MMC publisher Andrea King was reaching out to advertisers to claim she had “realigned” the company’s “culture” and was “committed to creating a culture that is safe, respectful, and welcoming and that provides an equal opportunity workplace free from discrimination or harassment in any form.”

“The museum was one of the first institutions to line up to disassociate [from] Maine Media,” Skilton observed. “I screen-shotted their Instagram [post]” announcing that decision. “I was enraged, because of the hypocrisy of a very similar incident happening at your institution, that you didn’t want to unearth.

“Now, this isn’t physical abuse,” Skilton added. “I wasn’t asked to do any sexual favors for a promotion, but [the PMA] facilitated sexual harassment on a public scale. … They didn’t care when their own employee’s gender identity and orientation were being attacked on a public level.”

Whether or not they gave a damn before, the PMA certainly cares about Skilton’s experience now. When I brought his allegations to the attention of the museum’s director, Mark Bessire, he and Jones, who’s since been promoted to Deputy Director and Director of External Affairs, moved swiftly to draft a document in which they counter that Skilton’s claims are all either “not true” or “not accurate.” They have sought to convince The Bollard that his account is not credible enough to merit publication.

But Skilton is credible. Frankly, he is one of the most insightful and articulate young adults I have ever interviewed. And his concerns about the management of PMA personnel and their low pay relative to the compensation of top administrators (not to mention the level of compensation necessary to live in Portland) were echoed by several other former employees.

“The museum is a fantastic resource for our city but it’s rotting on the inside,” one of them told me. “I really hope it can salvaged one day. This is a step in that direction.”

A “toxic corporate culture”

The divide between the highest and lowest paid PMA workers is also a physical divide: the white wall toward the back of the Payson Building, the one with the iconic brick façade, facing Congress Square, that houses the museum’s galleries and offices. “There were other departments that had difficulties,” Skilton said. “It was mainly anyone who was not in the corporate wings. So the departments that were treated poorly would be Visitor Experience, Security and Facilities. If you were behind the ‘white wall’ in the Payson Building, you made more money, you got all of the extra holidays, and you weren’t just treated like the scum of the earth.” The security staff, in particular, “was treated very poorly at the museum,” Skilton said. “I felt bad for those guys and girls.”

“I had thought that the corporate culture was pretty gross for a while, and I had just tried to look the other way and worry about myself,” said Skilton. That changed during the holiday season of 2016. Skilton was in a supervisory position by then — overseeing workers at the front desk, the museum store, and a small call center for membership — and with his immediate supervisor away on vacation, he said he shouldered the burden of enforcing the directive that came down from on high: fire the entire department.

“I was asked to lay them off on Christmas Eve, and I said no,” Skilton said. “I said I wouldn’t lay people off on Christmas Eve, and they said, ‘Then you can do it on New Year’s Eve.’”

Bessire and Jones dispute this. In their formal response to Skilton’s allegations, they wrote that employees in the Visitor Experience department were notified of the layoffs on Dec. 27 of 2016, and that “Tanner was not directed to fire staff.”

“I made all of those calls myself,” Jones told me, “with our CFO and with the direct supervisor of the department.”

Skilton may have been unaware of any such calls. He said he voluntarily took on the responsibility of breaking the bad news because he didn’t want his manager “to have to do it from vacation. She was this amazing working mother, deserved her time away, and I was willing to handle it,” he said. “It was also an important professional experience for me, even though it was a painful experience.”

Actually, Skilton added, “it was very horrible. I had people crying at my desk. They had no idea” the layoffs were coming. “It was a department full of all women,” Skilton had noted earlier in our interview. “I called them ‘my ladies.’”

The “face of the museum”: Tanner Skilton (far right) with his “ladies” in the Visitor Experience department, as pictured in the PMA’s most recent annual report.

The PMA had planned to close for five weeks, beginning in January of 2017, to reinstall its collection as part of a project called “Your Museum, Reimagined.” “All Visitor Experience employees were notified in 2015 of this closure via individual letters about the planned closure,” Bessire and Jones wrote in their formal response to my questions.

However, the letters, inserted into employees’ work mailboxes, did not inform them that they’d be losing their jobs at Christmastime prior to that closure. The plan to reorganize and significantly cut the Visitor Experience department was kept behind the “white wall” for weeks or months before the ax abruptly fell.

Skilton said he and his supervisor recognized that the staffing structure of their department was unfair well before the purge. He said his boss “wrote this amazing proposal to scale back a little bit, but then give a large number of employees full-time roles with benefits, because we had a lot of … workers who made this horrible amount of money and we only give them 30 hours a week, so they couldn’t get benefits,” Skilton said.

Instead, the top brass, on the advice of consultants and lawyers, decided to lay off all the Visitor Experience staff — except for the four supervisors, including Skilton — and then “invite” them to reapply for about half as many positions. According to the PMA, of the 10 non-supervisory employees in the department, two were rehired into full-time positions and two got part-time jobs in the same department. (Three were seasonal employees whose time was up anyway, according to the PMA, and three others either chose not to reapply or “did not respond to the invitation to apply.”)

“Having people not working is never a good thing, but we really thought through this,” Bessire said during one of two interview sessions with The Bollard. “Being around the holidays is obviously never a good thing, but January was strategically the right moment for the entire institution to shut down to enable us to reopen in February. … Businesses have to make choices that work for the overall institution.”

The layoffs became “a stain on our department,” Skilton said. His “ladies” were like family to the other employees who worked on the public side of the white wall. “These were some older women, everyone’s mother or grandmother or sister or girlfriend or whatever, metaphorically speaking,” Skilton said. “I laid them off, so I’m the enemy now, but Lizzy’s the real one who had her hand up my back, so I never got to explain myself. And I was totally ashamed that I did that. I’ve spoken to several of those women post-employment and a lot of them are still critical of me, saying, ‘You should have just walked out or quit.’ It was hard for me, and I still regret doing it. I wish that it could have been done a different way, or I wish that I had reacted differently, but I was only 24 at the time. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“That’s when things started to get a little super-toxic for me,” said Skilton. As the Lead Ambassador, he led an initiative to improve the “customer service” skills of his fellow employees, including the security guards, “a department which needed it the most,” he said. “They have a job to do … but you can still do that while being friendly.”

Skilton acknowledges that he made a mistake early on during this training. One day, he wore a thin white shirt that became almost transparent when he stood beneath the stage lights of the museum’s auditorium to deliver a presentation on customer service. One of the security guards complained about that to his supervisor, who handled it professionally. “She’s like, ‘Alright, just be aware if you’re going to be on stage, maybe you should wear a black shirt or something,’” Skilton recalled. “That was the first time my appearance or clothing choice was kind of ostracized. I didn’t think that was a big deal, but it didn’t stop.”

Skilton said the negative comments from guards went from remarks about what he wore at work to criticism of what he wore outside of work and what he did on his personal time, including some casual modeling (nude and otherwise) for local artists. Skilton posted images from his personal life, including some modeling photos, on his Instagram account, which was set to allow public viewing. “A couple of the security guards continuously would discuss this” at work, Skilton said. “Words like my clothing is ‘too suggestive,’ ‘sexy,’ ‘too much skin.’ … Granted, all [clothing] that I wasn’t wearing at work.”

Skilton said the guards’ derogatory comments at work about his personal life made him uncomfortable, so he lodged a complaint with Jones, who was “very receptive” to hearing his concerns, “but kind of just was like, ‘Alright, well, shrug it off and get back to the job at hand.’”

“And I did,” Skilton said, “but I don’t know what was done to prevent that from happening and it didn’t stop happening. It kept happening, and then it got worse and got more catty.”

Skilton said he eventually felt like he was taking heat from all sides — from coworkers and the public. He was not only the “face” of the museum, but its “voice,” too — he recorded the greeting and instructions on the PMA’s phone system. “It was difficult to get that level of public backlash, a lot,” he said. “Not about things that I was doing, just about, like, ‘Oh, well, I don’t like the way you sound,’ or, ‘I don’t like the way you look.’ And then it was like, ‘I don’t like you.’ ‘I don’t like your clothes.’ ‘I don’t like the fact that you’re gay.’”

In their formal response, the PMA said “immediate and appropriate action” was taken to address Skilton’s concerns about his coworkers’ comments. Confidentiality rules governing personnel matters prevent the museum from providing details, it said, but the PMA “is confident that we addressed all of the concerns that were brought to our attention.”

Skilton isn’t satisfied with that.

The abuse was not Jones’ fault, he said, but “it’s her fault that it continued. I will take no responsibility [for] the fact I was sexually harassed at work. And 100 percent of the fault is on Elizabeth Jones for not stopping it.

“She could have stopped it, she could have terminated that [gossiping guard] that day,” he continued. “That’s not what I wanted. … I said, ‘This is a coachable moment for this individual.’ And it got worse. He started to retaliate more.”

Other than Jones, Skilton said there was no one on the other side of the white wall that he felt could be of help. At the time, HR duties were handled by the Deputy Director and Business Manager, who also did bookkeeping and myriad other administrative tasks in an office near those of other top administrators, so there was “absolutely no forum” to privately share work-related complaints, said Skilton.

“When you start at the museum, you went up and she signed some paperwork, you signed some paperwork,” Skilton said of this administrator. “I watched a video on sexual harassment by myself in, like, a closet, a tiny room, and there was no checkout. In the two years I worked there, there was never a ‘let’s have a check-in about our ethics policy or our sexual-harassment policy.’”

When the top brass did deign to address staff, it was, “‘We’re only here to talk about the art and so-and-so’s promotion, and all this money that just got donated to the museum,’” said Skilton. “They didn’t want to give [workers] a voice because they were afraid of the mob mentality, of all these other issues that could have been unearthed — things like pay or bad benefits.”

There were other aspects of the museum’s “corporate toxicity that should have been brought up to HR, but there was no one to bring it up to,” said Skilton. “So we would just go and get a beer after work and bitch about it and hate our jobs. So many people that work at the museum hate their jobs. I mean, I think I made $2,000 over the limit to qualify for EBT and free health care — as [an employee] of the museum that needed a four-year degree.”

The PMA hired an HR professional in the spring of 2017, a few weeks before Skilton left. During his exit interview with this new HR person, Skilton told her: “You’re very lucky that I’m in the situation I am. You’re very lucky that I got a great new job and that I’m poor — because you’ve made me poor. I have fiscal obligations and no time. Because if I was one of your curatorial assistants with a trust fund and a Bowdoin master’s degree, you’d be speaking to my lawyer today.”

“I was that strong about the fact that there was a negligent abuse case at the museum, but I didn’t have time, money or effort to go through with that,” Skilton continued. “This is something that needs to change on a legal basis.”

“The PMA works each and every day to be a conscientious and proactive employer,” the museum wrote in a prepared statement provided to The Bollard, “and one who assess [sic] its benefits, pay scales and rates, job descriptions and position needs early and often.”

The “incredible people”

When it comes to assessing the hourly pay rates of workers on the public side of the white wall, “early and often” means about once every four years. According to the PMA, in 2010 and 2014 the museum hired a consulting firm to survey “comparable local and national organizations,” and “salary ranges were adjusted to reflect this new data.”

The pay rate for new hires was increased in 2016 as part of the museum’s five-year Strategic Plan, and as of this year, average hourly pay rates are 14-to-26 percent higher than they were in July of 2016. The lowest-paid Visitor Ambassador that month made $10.10/hour, according to the PMA. That job now starts at $12/hour. The lowest-paid security guards got $10.75/hour two years ago; starting pay for that position is now $12/hour, as well.

Granted, that’s still peanuts, especially if you have, say, student loans, or a child, or an apartment anywhere near the museum. And don’t forget that about 20 percent of hourly workers’ paychecks is withheld for taxes, so take-home pay is still about $10/hour for the workers cited above, which works out to an annual income under $21,000 for a full-time museum employee putting in 40 hours a week.

According to a widely cited report published last year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the minimum “housing wage” necessary in the Portland area to secure shelter at an affordable level (paying no more than 30 percent of your income in rent) was $25.02/hour. For the state as a whole, it was $18.05. A full-time PMA worker making $12/hour earns about $1,750 per month after taxes. Compare that with the typical rent for a small apartment around here, and you don’t need to hire an HR firm to know the PMA doesn’t even come close to providing most of its workers with a livable wage.

An ugly truth in the art world is that even the largest and most richly endowed institutions pay their employees peasant wages. But some of these art serfs are revolting — and winning better compensation for themselves.

Last month, members of a union representing workers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in Manhattan, won a battle over pay and benefits after a lengthy struggle that included a walkout and protests inside the museum and outside swanky parties for members and donors. During an interview in August on the podcast produced by the arts publication Hyperallergic, union member Athena Holbrook, a collections specialist at MoMA, summarized arts workers’ grievances by quoting a slogan used during a previous strike at her museum: “You can’t eat prestige.”

“Oftentimes, as art and cultural workers, we’re expected to kind of sacrifice for the work that we’re doing for the art,” Holbrook said, “and we are passionate about art, we’re passionate about what we do. We love our jobs and often are willing to make these sacrifices, but we shouldn’t have to. I think it’s a specific culture within the art world. You go to school for your undergrad and then you go for your master’s and then you get an internship and you’re barely paid.”

That comment echoes an inside joke at the PMA that Skilton shared with me: Did you hear about the curatorial assistant position? “It’s the job that a hundred girls want and one will get,” Skilton said, “and she’ll get paid $12 an hour, and she’ll have a master’s degree from Bowdoin in art history.”

Workers at the PMA aren’t unionized, but it wouldn’t take much collective action on their part to swiftly bring the institution to its knees. As a former guard remarked, the museum couldn’t open without guards because its insurance policy mandates that guards be stationed in the vicinity of the artwork.

“We were definitely treated in the Visitor Experience department like the steerage department of the museum,” Skilton said, “even though if all of the Visitor Experience ambassadors decided to not work one day, the museum would not be able to operate at all. I would like to see the directors manage the front desk and actually speak to the visitors, manage the visitors, because I think it would be a laughable experience. They have great ideas at the top level, but they have no idea how to run the museum from an operations basis.”

Even employees on the private side of the white wall acknowledge that the prestige of working at the museum acts as an informal benefit that helps counterbalance the low compensation. Graeme Kennedy, the PMA’s Director of Communications, remarked that being in his field, “you can go elsewhere pretty easily and make a lot of money, but it also gets pretty morally and ethically confusing sometimes. So for me, my personal choice is that being able to work in the arts and advocate for this museum and support its mission is morally and ethically powerful enough that whatever it can’t do on the actual compensation side, it’s worth it for me, and that’s an individual choice.

“We trust our employees to make the individual choices that are right for them and their families,” Kennedy continued. “Some folks come to us after they’ve retired and have pensions, and so a part-time, $12-an-hour or $13.65-an-hour job — they’re not looking to build a career in that field. That’s different than someone like Tanner, that’s different than someone who might be younger or starting out their career. … There are limits to what we can do.”

When I expressed surprise during this interview that the PMA has no system in place to give hourly workers even an annual cost-of-living adjustment in pay, Bessire said, “We’re non-profit, so so much is based on how much we raise in a year and how many people come through the museum. We’re not like a business that can guarantee revenue every year.”

“I’ve got some serious targets to hit every year,” Bessire added. “It’s hard. … It is Maine, and raising money here is not easy. There’s money here, but it’s very frugal and there’s very high expectations and you have to work really hard for it.”

As a consequence of this unpredictability, the hardworking people on the public side of the wall cannot count on any increase in pay from year to year, he explained.

Bessire’s salary, however, increases by tens of thousands of dollars annually.

According to tax documents, Bessire’s base compensation in 2015 (not including benefits) was $231,112, up from about $214,000 the year before. In 2016, the director’s cut was $262,740, and last year he raked in close to $300,000, bringing the cumulative total of the raises he’s received in that four-year period to $83,967. Bessire’s 2017 salary was about double what the second-highest-paid PMA employee made (CFO and Deputy Director Elena Henry), and nearly triple what the third-highest-paid employee (Chief Curator and Deputy Director Jessica May) brought home that year.

To groundlings like Skilton, the atmosphere of moneyed prestige that pervades the PMA can easily sour into resentment. “I worked all the member events, I worked all the high-ranking parties,” he said, “sometimes as a coat boy, and sometimes as a crowd person. Meanwhile, the director of this or the co-director of that are out there having a glass of champagne, but I’m the one holding down the bottom line. You might be getting million-dollar donations out there, but I’m the one that’s helping your 90-year-old, highest-ranking member up the stairs and making sure that she has somewhere to sit down — and getting paid $13.46 an hour, with no dental, pretty baseline health benefits, and ten days of paid time off a year — ten.” (Note: the PMA has since doubled the number of paid vacation days hourly employees receive, in part, Bessire said, to make up for the lack of raises.)

The low pay, the poor response to employee grievances, and the divide between workers on different sides of the white wall could eventually bring the whole institution down, Skilton said. “I don’t think that they can continue as an employer if they don’t change or if they don’t shuffle up their top [management]. I don’t know how many other people have experienced this at the museum — I’m sure there are others who have not come forward, who still work there, who don’t care to come forward.

“I didn’t want to come forward because I want revenge,” he added. “I came forward because I don’t want this to happen to someone else, and because I need some sort of closure.”

The museum’s top administrators seem to believe their own hype, like the Maine magazine version of their institution is reality. “They have this very contrived PR idea in their head,” Skilton said, “and I think that this story will shock the public, will shock the members, shock the trustees — the people who pay their salaries, millions of dollars a year.

“They think that the museum is this beautiful ivory-tower institution,” he concluded, “when it’s really a nasty place.”

*This characterization of Skilton’s orientation has been adjusted, at Skilton’s request, from the version that appears in print.