The executive director of the Louisiana Children’s Museum, Julia Bland, has been placed on leave amid an investigation into a widespread complaint alleging mistreatment of employees, especially people of color, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation.
The nonprofit museum has hired an outside law firm to investigate the allegations, which reached several members of the museum’s board of directors a few weeks ago in a letter from a former employee who recently left the museum.
Among the allegations, two sources said, were that a Bland executive asked about the immigration status of workers at Empire, the museum’s trash contractor; And those concerns about patrons touching the museum exhibit in a sexual way fell on deaf ears.
The allegations, among several made by the former employee, date back to 2021. The investigation also addresses complaints from 2020 that led to an eruption among the museum’s staff. Several former employees said that Bland failed to address a range of complaints alleging racial bias in hiring, promoting and treating employees.
Former employees described simmering tensions with protests sweeping the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. Bland and the museum were considered by many employees to be too slow to issue a public statement against racial injustice, and too slow to implement other changes sought by the staff.
“It was definitely a longer delay than the employees were comfortable with,” said one former employee. “The statement was kind of the bottom line they could do. They didn’t take any actions that were visible to the employees other than this statement.”
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Former employees said Bland repeatedly canceled their meeting invitations to express their grievances. When the meeting took place, in June 2020, Bland and then-chairman Scott Zander were presented with testimony alleging abuse or racial bias, along with a series of demands.
Several former employees said Bland stopped making changes, before the museum soon laid off all of its staff in response to the pandemic.
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Museum officials declined to confirm Bland’s investigation or business case, but acknowledged that Lauren Clay, the museum’s director of operations, is serving as interim CEO. Bland is still listed as CEO on the museum’s website.
In an email, Chairman Colin Levy declined to answer questions about Bland or the allegations, citing a “longstanding policy of not discussing personnel matters in a public forum.”
Bland, 70, has led the museum for more than two decades, directing its 2019 move to a new $46 million campus in City Park after 30 years on Julia Street in the Central Business District.
After being contacted by phone this week, Bland declined to discuss her job status, saying, “I can’t answer that question” before she hung up with a reporter. Did not reply to a subsequent message.
Zander was among several museum board members who declined to comment.
The museum raked in nearly $14 million in revenue in 2019, according to the most recent tax file available. Most of it — $9 million — came from government grants. Bland’s $100,000 wage is listed on tax records.
The sources said employees of Acorn, Dickie Brennan’s café at the museum, were also contacted as part of the investigation.
Masks are optional in the museum’s outdoor exhibits.
Among the 36 board members listed on the museum’s website are elected city councilor J.P. Morrell and Walt Leger III, a former state representative who is set to lead New Orleans & Co., the city’s tourism and marketing agency. Morell declined to comment. Leger referred questions to Levi.
Bland was placed on leave shortly after board members received the former employee’s complaint, which cataloged a variety of alleged racism in the museum. Several former museum employees, who each spoke to the newspaper on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their current jobs or job opportunities, said that few of the museum’s roughly 30 employees are people of color.
The small group of black staff at the museum has shrunk even further with the 2019 move to City Park. Levy, the chairman of the board, declined to disclose details of the diversity in the museum’s staff, saying that it, too, was a matter of individuals.
Museum workers claimed in 2020 that black workers were underrated and subjected to heavier penalties for “minor mistakes” than white staff.
Racial tensions came to a head at the museum after staff pressured Bland to issue a strong endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, among other demands.
“A large number of employees expressed their discomfort with returning to work,” said a former employee, amid the silence of the museum. “They just wanted to have a meeting with the CEO to voice the employees’ concerns.”
After the meeting, the museum posted a message on its website that described “deliberate and institutionalized racism” and declared that the museum “must be a much stronger part of the solution.” “Black lives matter,” she added.
But former museum workers said Bland failed to act on a list of demands signed by 17 museum employees. They wanted an open, moderated forum for employees to voice their concerns and for the museum to hire an independent HR person, launch racial equality training and form a diversity committee.
“It was just one opposition after another,” said another former employee.
Little happened before the museum laid off nearly everyone in August 2020. Some rehired beginning in early 2021.
Former employees blamed leadership, along with low wages, for high employee turnover. A former employee described a “persistent disregard for people’s mental health and general well-being” that transcended race.
“She’s a hero for the people, and a martyr for the people,” said a former Bland employee. “Why does this happy place make everyone feel completely oppressed who works there?”