Trustee Ousted from Asheville Art Museum Board

Written by Sally Kestin, Asheville Watchdog.

This story was originally published by Asheville Watchdog, an independent nonprofit news team serving Asheville and surrounding communities.

An outspoken member of the Asheville Art Museum’s board, the only current trustee to speak publicly about employee complaints of mistreatment, was recently ousted from the board and removed as a museum volunteer.

“I don’t do this lightly,” said Paul Saenger, chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees, according to a recording of the board meeting obtained by Asheville Watchdog. “It’s our responsibility to … promote the health of the museum and its mission. But I feel like that has been compromised on numerous occasions by Michelle Weitzman.”

Saenger told Asheville Watchdog that as far as he knew, the museum, established in 1948, had never removed a trustee.

Weitzman, who until Tuesday had also been a volunteer docent leading tours of the museum, engaged in a “pattern of disruptive behavior,” Saenger said in the meeting.

He said Weitzman had disrupted board meetings and had inappropriate communications with staff. He said an Asheville Watchdog investigative story last week, in which Weitzman was quoted supporting ex-employees who complained of a “toxic” workplace, had “tainted the image of the museum.”

As a “final straw,” Saenger said, Pamela Myers, the museum’s executive director, “and a couple of others were threatened” at a museum party the night of Nov. 10. “I think they felt threatened anyway, physically, and they were verbally attacked.”

Saenger allowed Weitzman an opportunity to respond at the board meeting before she was banished. Weitzman addressed the incident at the party by saying it occurred at the end of the evening with “very few guests at the museum.”

Weitzman said a museum patron, Monica Krider, “had wanted to share her thoughts with Pam” about the Watchdog story. “I showed her where Pam was,” Weitzman said.

But it was Krider, not Weitzman, who confronted Myers — in front of board member Robert Benites. Krider told Asheville Watchdog she did not threaten anyone.

“That’s absurd,” Krider said. “I’m sorry that having a frank conversation that you didn’t want to have seemed like an attack. It was not an attack.”

Weitzman said at the meeting she was being punished for standing up against the mistreatment of employees. She said that former employees had told her, unsolicited, that they were “still experiencing nightmares, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and continual therapy” from their experience working at the museum.

“This is no joke. This is not a game to me,” Weitzman said, adding that she had raised concerns about employee mistreatment with Saenger; with the previous chair, Herbert “Butch” Patrick Jr.; and with board vice chair Kevin Click, the chair of the human resources committee.

“I wrote recommendations, and I was dismissed, so I went through proper channels before putting my name and my reputation in the public view,” Weitzman said.

She said the foundation of the museum was not its collections but rather the “people who make the everyday possible. The high attrition rate is simply bad business.”

“You’re focusing on me and refusing to focus on the problem, Pam’s leadership inability,” Weitzman said.

She described the board as “hand-picked and curated” supporters of Myers, who has been director of the museum for 27 years.

She urged her fellow trustees to ask for Myers’s resignation and to find a new executive director.

Instead, board member Benites made a motion “that Michelle be removed from the board.”

Trustee Cites ‘Cancel Culture’

Benites said he was “terribly distressed” by the incident at the party. He then deferred to trustee Gary Zahler, who joined the virtual meeting late.

Zahler mentioned “an issue,” an apparent reference to employee complaints about Myers’s management dating to at least 2015. But Zahler also referenced “all the good work.”

The board has stood by Myers, 65, largely crediting her with raising $30 million in a capital campaign that spanned well over a decade. A renovated and expanded museum opened in 2019 in a glass building that is now a landmark downtown, and the museum has an endowment of more than $6 million.

“I think this cancel culture has gone so totally out of control, and I think that’s exactly what Michelle is dealing with,” Zahler said, “not recognizing the fact that all the good work that had gone on before, that there was an issue, and because of that, Pam should be canceled. I think this is horrible.”

Zahler added that he was supposed “to be making the motion” to remove Weitzman, “but obviously I got on a little too late … I would like to second that motion.”

Saenger then polled the trustees. All voted in favor of removing Weitzman.

“We’ll certainly take everything you had to say to heart, Michelle, as we always have,” Saenger said.

Weitzman said she wanted to make clear that she was not the one confronting Myers at the party. “I hardly said anything. The patron was in her face, not me.”

“We’re clear,” Saenger replied. “I think we’ll move on with our agenda now. And I’m sorry to say, Michelle, you’re no longer on the board. You’re no longer a volunteer.”

‘Appalled’ – Reaction Comes In

After the meeting, Weitzman told Asheville Watchdog she believed her removal was retribution for challenging the museum’s leadership.

“Inappropriate behavior? What, because I spoke up?” she said. “They’re not hearing. They don’t want to hear. They orchestrated it all.”

Weitzman had volunteered at the museum since 2016 and held a seat on the board as president of the Docents Association. After the meeting, she sent an email to the docents, writing that she had been removed “as a result of standing up for museum staff for the last year, within the Board of Trustees and most recently on record with the article.”

Nancy Ferguson, a 30-year museum volunteer and former trustee, told Asheville Watchdog, “I was appalled to learn of Ms. Weitzman’s dismissal. All I can say is this is not the museum that I have known and loved for so long.”

Doubling Down

Candace Reilly, one of six former employees who complained to the trustees in 2015, told Asheville Watchdog the board had a chance to “do the right thing,” but chose to support Myers.

“Given these extreme circumstances and the weight of what’s happening inside that museum, it is clear they are continuing to choose one person over the health of the institution,” Reilly said. “This is what was decided seven years ago, and it is the same today.”

David Huff, one of five museum board members who resigned in the spring, said the trustees were “doubling down” by removing Weitzman.

“No one on that board even bothered to come to Michelle’s defense and say, ‘Well, wait a minute. Is there not something to this?’ ” Huff said.

Chair Equates Behavior to Vandalism

Employee complaints have been a source of discord on the museum board. As Asheville Watchdog reported, the board has twice brought in an executive coach — in 2015 after the six complaints to trustees, and again in 2021 after eight other ex-staffers voiced their concerns to Huff and board member Darren Green.

The work environment is “beyond toxic,” Huff and Green wrote in a 2021 summary. “The word used by three former staff is ‘traumatic.’ ”

Kevin Click, the board vice-chair and a former human resources executive, said in a written response to questions from Asheville Watchdog that Myers “has been very positive about the coaching and feedback she is receiving.”

“I believe we are on a solid path forward,” Click wrote.

But some trustees felt the board should do more, such as hire an administrator to run the day-to-day operations and free Myers to focus on fundraising and larger issues. Three of the board members who resigned in May, including Huff and Green, told The Watchdog the treatment of employees and the board’s response was a factor in their decision to leave.

Weitzman was the only current trustee who agreed to be interviewed for the Watchdoginvestigative story and was quoted saying the museum “looks really pretty on the outside. But the culture of fear in employees, the morale and the attrition is horrendous.”

In ticking off Weitzman’s “pattern of disruptive behavior” at Tuesday’s board meeting, Saenger, the chair, said, “I don’t see in any way how this benefits anyone or anything about the museum.”

“I liken this behavior to what the vandals are doing defacing the museum,” Saenger said.

Last week, the letters in the museum’s sign were altered from “Asheville Art Museum” to “A Hell Art Museum.” Asheville Police spokeswoman Samantha Booth said Wednesday she could not locate a police report on the vandalism.

After the vote to remove Weitzman, Saenger said, “I would just underscore that it’s just not appropriate to take things into your own hands. This should be more a group effort.”

Weitzman responded that she attempted “a group effort” and failed.

Emails Show Concern for Employees

Emails provided by Weitzman show she raised employee concerns beginning in March 2022. In one email to Click, the chair of the human resources committee, and then board chair Butch Patrick, Weitzman wrote that fear of being fired “has created a large morale deficit compounded by the inability to speak up.”

She asked for “immediate action” and wrote that “there have been issues and concerns for a long period of time.”

Weitzman pressed on after Saenger became the chair, asking for more information on employee complaints, staff exit interviews, and the executive coach that had been brought in for Myers and senior leaders, emails show.

Saenger responded in an Aug. 9 email that “while it is important that trustees are informed as to staffing needs, etc., personal details are restricted by state and federal policy.”

“I cautioned you on direct contact with staff,” Saenger wrote. “You said to me you will not stand down on this. I’m hopeful you will stand up and see that while your efforts are to you for the good of the museum, they are proving counterproductive.

“If there are additional episodes of improper staff involvement, I will bring this to the trustees to consider your continuing on the board.”

On Monday, Nov. 14, the day before Tuesday’s board meeting, Saenger wrote to Weitzman, “In accordance with the bylaws, I am giving you notice that given the inappropriate behavior when you and your companions verbally attacked and intimidated Pam and others at the members event I will request a discussion as to your continuing to serve on the AAM board. I will ask for your dismissal as a board member and museum volunteer.”

What Happened at That Party?

The museum held a member appreciation party Nov. 10, the day after the Watchdogstory appeared. Monica Krider, a realtor, attended as a guest of Gretchen Lewis, who is also a realtor and a museum member.

Weitzman was part of a group who had gathered on the second floor to talk when Krider, whom Weitzman said she had just met, said she’d like to speak with Pam Myers, according to Weitzman.

Asheville Watchdog spoke separately with Weitzman, Lewis, and Krider the day after the event.

Krider said that she “was disturbed” by what she had read in the Watchdog story. “It’s not even just about the people who work there who were hurt by someone’s tactics and approach,” Krider said. “It’s also about what it looks like for Asheville, all of us.”

Weitzman and the group moved to the first floor, where Myers was standing with trustee Bob Benites.

Krider said she asked Myers about the Watchdog story, and Myers declined to discuss it, saying, according to Krider, “You’re in my house.”

“I never heard anyone speak with such divine right,” Krider said.

She returned to the group, and Lewis approached Myers. Lewis said that Myers told her, “Now is not the time,” but did not say when she would be available to speak. Lewis said Benites intervened, defending Myers.

Asked for comment, Benites wrote that after “significant discussion” the board had decided to “have all communications be with the chair.”

Krider said she felt the response to Lewis was “not right” and approached Myers a second time.

Krider said she told Myers, “ ‘Why do you think you can just stonewall people who are really struggling to understand your role and some of what’s been going on here?’ ”

According to Weitzman, Benites “got defensive and said, ‘I don’t think this is appropriate,’ and Pam said, ‘I’m hosting a party.’ ”

Weitzman said Krider was shaking her finger at Myers but stopped when Myers asked her to. Krider, according to Weitzman, “continued with her rant about a terrible way to run an organization.”

A woman Weitzman identified as Lindsay Rosson, director of finance and operations at the museum, removed Krider’s wine glass from her hand and asked her to leave, according to Weitzman, Krider and Lewis.

The group, including Weitzman, left.

“Every request was honored,” Krider said. “ ‘Leave,’ I did. ‘Stop wagging your finger,’ didn’t even notice I was doing it.”

Krider said all Weitzman did “was tell me where Pam was standing and repeat something she had already apparently said that working for her is really difficult or however she worded it.”

“Terribly, Terribly Upset”

At the board meeting Tuesday, Benites said he was “terribly, terribly upset” by the incident.

“In all of my life, I’ve never been in a situation where there was such hostility, and I actually felt physically threatened,” Benites said. “I tried to stand in front of Pam. It was just very upsetting to me.”

Saenger said in the meeting, “If you’ve read Lindsay’s report or spoken to others, I think it’s clear this was grossly inappropriate behavior by a trustee … And this was in the midst of an event for members in the atrium of the museum.”

Asheville Watchdog requested the report Saenger referenced and any videotape of the incident. Saenger responded, “We do not believe it would be appropriate to share incident reports or security videos.”

Sarah Reincke, president of the Docents Association before Weitzman and a former trustee, said she believes the board “was trying to find any excuse to rid themselves of a Trustee who consistently voiced valid opinions the Executive Committee refused to consider.”

Reincke said Weitzman “was not the person who reprimanded Pam” at the party, “and she is not responsible for how another person expresses an opinion.”

The board used “the actions of a third party as cause for Michelle’s dismissal,” further proof, Reincke said, of the museum’s “dysfunctional leadership.”

In a statement to Asheville Watchdog, Saenger wrote that the museum does “not comment on trustees who leave the organization.”

“If the board feels it necessary to ask a trustee to step down before the end of their normal term, it is not a matter we take lightly, but with the best interest of the museum in mind,” Saenger wrote. “We have never censored or disciplined a trustee for expressing differing views or opinions. Healthy and productive debates are beneficial to any organization.”

Saenger also wrote that the board has “complete confidence in Pam.”

“This team, led by Pam, has built an outstanding institution,” Saenger wrote. “It is a cornerstone in this art-rich town that we can all be very proud of.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter  Email [email protected].