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Former curator sues Worcester Art Museum for discrimination

Former curator of the Worcester Art Museum (WAM), Rachel Parikh is suing the institution in Massachusetts on the grounds of being discriminated against by the museum’s director, a fellow curator, and the executive committee, WBUR reports.

In a 64-page lawsuit Parikh filed on July 19 in Worcester County Superior Court, it cites Parikh being “mocked and ridiculed because she is a brown-skinned South Asian” Indian woman and “subjected to a hostile and offensive work environment and retaliation” in the time she held her position. Parikh served as an associate curator of the arts of Asia and the Islamic World for two years until she resigned in September 2022.

The filing highlights alleged discriminatory instances from WAM Director Matthias Waschek and Curatorial Affairs Director and Curator of European Art, Claire Whitner.

One instance details Waschek and his husband asking “intrusive questions” about Parikh’s cultural history during a dinner, which prompted them to imitate Indian caricatures with accents and “stereotypical head-nods” upon mentioning a British sitcom about an Indian family from the 1990s.

In another instance, Parikh’s negotiations with Whitner for a promotion from an assistant title to associate at the beginning of her hire, were dismissed as “just a fellow.” When Whitner hired a new associate curator, one who had “two years of curatorial experience with the same type of fellowship at the same institution where Dr. Parikh worked immediately prior to coming to WAM” compared to Parikh’s six years of post Ph.D museum experience. Upon questioning this, Whitner responded, “I know, but when you are in my position you will understand.”

Parikh reported these instances to the museum’s human resources department in 2022 and WAM hired LAM & Associates, a consultancy firm, to investigate her report. The final report from the investigator, Laurie Margolies, stated that Parikh’s statements were “credible” yet not “confirmed” by colleagues.

The filing also mentions how a past female WAM employee filed a lawsuit against Waschek for age and sex discrimination in 2015. The employee received a settlement.

In response to the lawsuit, Waschek said in an email to Artnews “I have been dismayed by the false allegations that have been made in this lawsuit and the homophobic tropes that are invoked.”

The statement continues, “I have worked hard over the last thirty plus years to build a reputation of professionalism and integrity. As a gay man who has experienced discrimination first-hand, I have always held DEAI [diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion] issues as a core value, and have sought to do my best to eliminate discrimination from the workplace and build a culture of inclusivity.”

Since the release of LAM & Associate’s report, Art News reports that “the board has required Waschek to undergo ‘further training and efforts to increase DEAI efforts at the museum.'”

During Margolies’ investigation, she concluded that there was “little trust that employees felt they were protected and would be kept safe.” In Margolies’ report, she sensed an environment where “loyalty seemed to trump honesty or memory” as the museum had a pattern of behavior “that began prior to her [Parikh’s] arrival at the museum,” according to ArtNews.

The attorney representing WAM’s defendents, David Felper at the Bowditch law firm, called Parikh’s allegations as “unsupported” and “statements taken out of context,” according to ArtNet news.

Parikh noted that her experiences at WAM felt like “reliving her trauma” from her upbringing as a brown kid hence her resignation.

The filing states “The Board had endorsed and approved the discriminatory and retaliatory behavior in complete disregard of Dr. Parikh’s rights by failing to take her seriously, and refusing to hold Mr. Waschek accountable even though the outside investigator had concluded that Mr. Waschek’s behavior was completely unacceptable.”

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