The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Guards at National Gallery of Art complain of hostile environment

Guards in the gallery during the “Vermeer and the Masters of the Genre Painting” show. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

There’s a serenity inside the National Gallery of Art, where sun-dappled marble halls connect formal galleries and visitors enjoy masterpieces by Rembrandt, Cézanne, Picasso and Pollock under the watchful gaze of uniformed guards.

Beneath the calm, however, simmer long-suppressed frustration and anger on the part of some of the security force. For years, the museum’s gallery protection officers have complained of a hostile work environment fostered by managers who rule with a take-it-or-leave-it mentality, according to 17 current and former officers at the prestigious Washington museum. 

Sexual harassment, various instances of discrimination and retaliation are among the top complaints, according to these employees. They describe supervisors who are inept at scheduling, a workforce that is chronically understaffed and managers who are not held accountable for their actions.

The chief of the division, Mark E. Wallace, said he could not comment on specific allegations or internal investigations. “But what I can tell you is we take any harassment or discrimination claims extremely seriously,” he said. 

The Office of Protection Services is the museum’s second-largest division, accounting for almost one-third of all employees. Several guards say that the department fosters a climate of fear and intimidation and that those who complain — whether by emailing senior staff, voicing concerns during daily roll call or filing formal complaints with the gallery’s equal employment opportunity officer — often suffer retaliation. 

“They treat us like we’re bad people,” said Albertus-Hugo Van den Bogaard, a 65-year-old Army veteran hired 16 months ago. “People are intimidated. They will not make much noise.” 

Many guards say management is more focused on silencing complainers than on addressing the problems they raise: A guard who complained about a supervisor’s scheduling error was later formally reprimanded by that supervisor; another was told that anyone who speaks to the media could be fired. One female guard who accused a supervisor of inappropriate sexual language found herself in a training class led by her alleged harasser, according to the officer and two guards who corroborated her account. Van den Bogaard said he is being targeted for a prior medical condition that grew worse after a year of standing on the hard floors. He has asked his congressman to intervene. 

“The gallery does not tolerate retribution against an employee for having raised concerns and has strict policies in place to prohibit retaliation,” spokeswoman Anabeth Guthrie said.

Last summer, Dennis Hairston sent an email to Wallace with the subject line “Another Sleeper” and a photograph of an investigator, a higher-level member of the Protection Service division, asleep in the Cascade Cafe. He copied five others, including Director Earl “Rusty” Powell III. It was not the first time Hairston had reported sleeping supervisors, and he was frustrated that management didn’t address the problem, he said. In January, Hairston was suspended for three days without pay for unprofessional conduct and going outside the chain of command for repeatedly emailing Powell instead of following appropriate channels. Hairston, who resigned last month, said that in a meeting with Office of Protection Services Assistant Chief Genia Reaves, he cited a rule that permits officers to contact the “most senior member of an organization” in certain circumstances.

Reaves disagreed with Hairston’s reading of the rule. “The ‘most senior member of an organization’ refers to the most senior member of [the Office of Protection Services], Chief Wallace,” Reaves wrote in the letter to Hairston affirming his suspension. “Your interpretation that this permits you to contact Mr. Powell with workplace concerns is not reasonable.”

Gallery protection officers are the public face of the National Gallery of Art. Standing in the galleries, they direct visitors to exhibitions, restrooms and restaurants while warning them away from the priceless artwork. Many guards say these interactions are the highlight of the job. 

Overall, the guards describe a stratified, uncomfortable environment with a highly paid and predominantly white senior management team and a security force that is mostly minority.

Although most of its employees are federal workers, the National Gallery of Art is not a federal institution. In 1936, financier Andrew Mellon offered to give the country his art collection and money to build a museum to house it. His gift was accepted by Congress, and in 1941 the museum opened on the Mall. It operates as a private nonprofit organization, raising money from private donors to supplement its federal appropriation. The Smithsonian Institution is a similar private-public hybrid.

The museum’s hybrid structure creates tensions in the workforce, according to several employees. While 82 percent are federal employees — hired and paid according to federal guidelines — the remaining employees are paid with private funds and therefore aren’t constrained by federal rules. Museum executives throughout the country earn significantly more than federal employees, and by using private funds to pay their salaries, the gallery is able to hire outside the government restrictions.

The guards are federal employees, and their average salary was $47,076 in 2016, according to FederalPay, an independent service that tracks federal employment. The average salary of all the gallery’s federal employees was $76,500, according to FederalPay. The protection department’s leaders, Wallace and Reaves, both African American, are federal employees, too, and Wallace is among the museum’s 100 highest-paid federal workers. He earned $169,522 in 2016.

In comparison, the gallery’s top five earners each made significantly more than the U.S. president. Their average salary in 2016 was $697,185, according to the museum’s tax filings. The salaries are comparable to those of senior executives at other art museums.

Several guards say the socioeconomic disparity exacerbates the power dynamic. “Most of the guards are trying to [support] their families,” said Clifton Leach, who worked as a National Gallery guard for seven years. “When they come to the point of losing a job because they stand up, they lay down.”

Raynard Forte resigned in October after nine years, saying the job had no upward mobility. “I’ve seen Rusty Powell on many occasions,” Forte said. “He does not talk to guards. He’ll walk right past you. It’s cultural.”

A member of the protection staff who said the gallery was run by “good old boys” said that “there are two sets of rules — rules for them and rules for us.”

The four highest-paid executives are men, while 19 of the 37 senior leaders are women, according to Guthrie.

Workplace concerns are not limited to the guards, according to documents and interviews with staffers, most of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. More than a dozen employees — including guards, retail workers and others — have filed discrimination lawsuits against the museum in the past 15 years; some cases were dropped, and some were settled. In addition, the most recent federal employee survey revealed museum-wide complaints regarding merit-based promotions and policies for improving diversity and preventing favoritism. Last year, just 43 percent of gallery employees who completed the survey agreed that “senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment.”

In 2017, gallery employees reported 17 incidents to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of which five continued as formal complaints, according to Guthrie. Several employees told The Washington Post that they think the number would be higher but that supervisors discourage them from filing. That’s possible, said employment attorney Kevin E. Byrnes, who represented a gallery worker in a lawsuit against Powell. Although not a federal employee, Powell was defended by an assistant U.S. attorney, according to court documents.  

“The government is supposed to be the model employer under EEO law, but the model is broken,” said Byrnes, who emphasized the difficulty of winning these cases. “Current federal employment law, and the manner in which it is enforced, is both a steeplechase and a minefield. As an employee you have to clear all the hurdles, and they have to clear one.”

In the case of Hairston, the former gallery guard who was suspended for reporting a sleeping supervisor, division chief Wallace said an outside investigator was brought in to review the allegation. The case has been closed, but the gallery would not disclose its outcome.

“What the officers don’t see because of the chain of command is that we do take action,” Wallace said, speaking in general about his handling of internal complaints. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for management to tell the officer how a supervisor is being treated.”

Guthrie said the protection division “is a formal law enforcement environment” and chain of command “is of utmost importance for reasons of safety and protocol.” She listed other ways for employees to register complaints, including a whistleblower hotline and an alternative dispute resolution process. “None of these processes include contacting the director,” she said in an email. 

High turnover and chronic understaffing are other problems, the guards say. The attrition rate for the entire department, including armed security officers and supervisors, was 18 percent last year, according to Guthrie. In comparison, the attrition rate for the 700 security personnel at the Smithsonian Institution was 10 percent, a Smithsonian spokeswoman said. Both guard forces are paid according to the same federal guidelines. 

To supplement the force, the National Gallery hired an outside security firm from late 2016, when it reopened its renovated East Building, until January. Despite the added staff, the guards say, their supervisors threatened them with loss of pay if they did not report to work on Thanksgiving and the day after. Even those with a doctor’s note (a requirement of their collective-bargaining agreement) were docked, according to two employees.

Van den Bogaard, the 65-year-old Army veteran, said he has filed the required doctor’s forms for a light-duty post for half the workday but instead his supervisors have sent him home most days after four hours, requiring him to use his leave time until it ran out. He has not had a full salary for weeks.

“The paperwork was approved by HR. Everyone knows about it,” said Van den Bogaard, who was honored last year with a customer service award. “This is not how you treat a veteran.”

Van den Bogaard asked his congressman, Virginia Democrat Gerald E. Connolly, to intervene. 

“I am very concerned that a person who has honorably served our country for 15 years in the U.S. Army, including tours of duty in Kosovo and Baghdad, has been unable to have his reasonable accommodation request approved by the National Gallery of Art,” Connolly said in a statement to The Post. “I call upon the National Gallery to do the right thing and grant this reasonable request.” 

Guthrie explained that there are a limited number of seated posts and that they are assigned in the order they are requested.

“The essential feature of the job is to stand; that’s what it is,” she said.