As Mattress Factory Moves On From Sexual-Misconduct Controversy, Questions Remain

Jun 7, 2019

More than a year after it was first rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct, and their aftermath, the Mattress Factory continues moving on. Last month, the North Side art museum held its first opening event under interim executive director Hayley Haldeman, who started work in February.

The opening for Brooklyn-based artist Patte Loper’s “Laboratory for Other Worlds” was just one sign that on some level, the Mattress Factory is still doing what it’s long done: commissioning and exhibiting site-specific installation artworks. Loper’s room-sized work incorporates audio and video, with a hand-made feel and an outer-space theme. In addition, Haldeman says that the Mattress Factory has hired its first full-time human-resources manager – part of a retooling effort after four current or former employees filed federal labor charges against the museum last year.

The museum and employees settled that case in December. Haldeman says that despite the turmoil – which also included the death, in May 2018, of museum founder Barbara Luderowski – attendance has been strong, with March one of its best months ever. And the Mattress Factory is deep into preparations for the June 21st Urban Garden Party, its big annual fundraiser.

But critics say issues remain, including a rapid exodus of Mattress Factory staff: According to one former employee, about 30 full- and part-time staffers left over the past year, including long-time senior management.

The museum is forging ahead, says Haldeman, an attorney who was hired off the museum’s board. “We’ve had no trouble bringing in new people,” she said in a recent interview.

Employees have also objected to a lack of transparency at the museum, saying that the board and managers do not relate their plans well to staff. Haldeman says she is working to improve communication.

However, the biggest unanswered question might be the status of Michael Olijnyk, who has been on paid administrative leave from his post as executive director since September.

Starting in February 2018, employees came to Olijnyk with allegations that a male co-worker had raped two female employees, and sexually assaulted or harassed several others. While Olijnyk investigated the allegations, he never suspended the alleged attacker, as standard practice in such cases would dictate. And Olijnyk was one of the museum managers accused of targeting employees who complained about how the Mattress Factory handled the allegations, by verbally berating them or denying them work assignments.

Haldeman is the museum’s second interim director since Olijnyk was put on leave, and the museum has begun searching for a permanent executive director. But Olijnyk’s future with the museum he helped build more than 40 years ago remains in doubt.

Haldeman said “the board is considering the full range” of options on Olijnyk, including parting ways with him or bringing him back in some role. (The museum says Olijnyk himself is not available to the media.) But some critics say continued association with him would be a mistake.

“If the Mattress Factory were to bring Michael back in a capacity of like a curator, or something similar, I would feel like the museum was saying, ‘This guy did wrong but he’s too important for us to hold accountable,’” says Anna-Lena Kempen, one of the employees who brought labor charges against the museum.

Kempen left the museum in May. But she says morale there was still poor, and one reason was Olijnyk’s unresolved status.

“The board’s decision as far as what happens next will make a huge impact on what the atmosphere at the museum is going to be like, what kind of institution the museum is going to be, whether or not people can start rebuilding trust in management,” says Kempen, who worked in several museum departments, including as an art installer.

Some current Mattress Factory employees, speaking anonymously, said they felt similarly about Olijnyk returning.

Others in the community are watching, too. Jenn Gooch is a Pittsburgh-based artist who has taught at the museum and exhibited there. Last year, she stopped selling her work in the museum’s gift shop in protest. Gooch is among those waiting to see how the Mattress Factory proceeds.

“They haven’t really worked out some of their long-term leadership issues, and I think that’s where, as a community member, I’ll be able to trust that things have gotten better there,” says Gooch.

Others say the museum is headed in the right direction. Loper, the artist with new work in the museum’s Monterey Street annex, framed last year's events at the Mattress Factory as part of a larger societal reckoning.

“It’s a kind of a traumatic time in culture right now, and I feel like museums are a place where a lot of our conversations are happening, I think in a good way,” said Loper. “And I think since the election of 2016, a lot of things have become visible that weren’t visible before, and those conversations are happening all over, but especially in museums, and it happened here.”

Visitors to last month’s opening event included Laura Morgan, who lives nearby. Morgan said she knew of the Mattress Factory controversies, but still supports the museum.

“I’m very lucky to have this as a neighbor,” she said. “I get to come a lot. It’s very special.”