Judith O’Toole has stepped in as the Mattress Factory’s acting director in the wake of Executive Director Michael Olijnyk’s departure. Olijnyk was placed on paid leave as the museum grapples with complaints filed by current and former employees who say they faced sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting that abuse.
NEXTpittsburgh spoke with O’Toole, the former director and CEO of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, about her work temporarily leading one of Pittsburgh’s most beloved arts organizations.
NEXTpittsburgh: What was the atmosphere on your first few days and how did you handle things from the start?
O’Toole: This is an organization in crisis, but it retains its strength, focus, commitment to mission and ability to operate day-to-day. I commend the staff and the board for their dedication to ensuring the health and well-being of the Mattress Factory. The death of a strong founder is always a very traumatic event for organizations. I have witnessed many of these transitions and was part of one when I took over after the founding director of 36 years left The Westmoreland. The additional stress of the NLRB complaint adds an additional layer of concern.
My initial time there will be listening, collecting information and giving leadership and guidance. I am grateful to have the help of my associate, Mary Navarro, who has been engaged to assist me.
NEXTpittsburgh: This certainly isn’t an isolated case. We reported recently on Lenore Blum and sexism at Carnegie Mellon University and we heard from a lot of women facing similar situations in their workplace. What do you think needs to be done to stop this behavior?
O’Toole: This is a national epidemic that has been percolating for years. It was an issue when I entered the professional sector in the early 1980s. Now it has reached a head and women are demanding change. Administrators, organizations and their governing entities can address this by having clear policies and procedures in place, conducting workshops and training for their staff and boards and making sure that everyone involved has a deep commitment to addressing inequality in the workplace and eliminating opportunities for sexual harassment.
NEXTpittsburgh: What do you hope to accomplish in the interim and how long do you have?
O’Toole: My initial term is for three months and can be extended if both parties agree. It is my plan to review all the policies and procedures of the Mattress Factory and ensure that they are up to the best practices and standards of the American Alliance of Museums. At the end of the three-month period, I will make recommendations to the Mattress Factory Board of Trustees for the future.
NEXTpittsburgh: Is your role solely as acting director or is there an opportunity for you to take over permanently and does that interest you?
O’Toole: My role is as acting director for a three-month period that can be renewed (or not) by agreement between myself and the Mattress Factory. At this point, there have been no conversations beyond my role as acting director.