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Alcohol and the arts: San Diego museum workers complain of excessive drinking by donors at fundraisers

Last year, a former part-time attendant at the San Diego Museum of Art sued the nonprofit for sexual harassment after she said she was groped by a donor who had had too much to drink at a fundraiser.

In her lawsuit, Zelina Gaytan said she was not the only victim, and that despite multiple complaints to supervisors, her concerns went unaddressed and she left her job.

At the time, museum officials said they took the allegations seriously, and they hired an outside law firm to investigate. They also said they planned to boost staff training and hire security to protect the staff and patrons.

But now, ahead of the museum’s annual Culture & Cocktails fundraising event Thursday in Balboa Park, other museum employees say too little has been done to prevent further harassment. They also complain that the museum continues to serve alcohol at its fundraisers despite cases of sexual harassment.

“The San Diego Museum of Art does not protect museum attendants or Allied security guards from harassment by drunk patrons,” said one employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job.

“It’s not right that the museum would rather risk letting drunk patrons harass their employees rather than cut alcohol sales,” the worker said. “Despite the concerns raised over the last year, the museum has not changed its alcohol policy.”

Current and past employees said they want the museum to stop promoting alcohol, to improve security and to respond more forcefully when guests misbehave.

The museum said it continues to take the concerns of its workforce seriously and pointed to several changes it had instituted since Gaytan came forward. It also said it does not tolerate harassment in any form from employees or event guests.

“SDMA has a sexual harassment policy that is strictly enforced, and any complaints of sexual harassment are investigated and remedied,” the museum said in a statement. “All hourly employees, supervisors and managers are trained on the sexual harassment policy on a regular basis.”

Museum officials also said they equip attendants with radios in case they need to report any issue with a guest.

They also allow employees to opt out of working at events where alcohol is offered, and they limit Culture & Cocktails event attendees to two drink vouchers. Guests can buy more drinks if they choose.

Allied Universal did not respond to a request for comment this past week.

Gaytan sued the San Diego Museum of Art in July 2021, accusing the nonprofit of sexual harassment, gender and race discrimination, retaliation and wrongful constructive termination, among other complaints.

Zelina Gaytan is suing the San Diego Museum of Art, alleging she was sexually groped by a donor who was drunk at a recent fundraiser.

(Provided)

“Throughout Ms. Gaytan’s employment with SDMA, SDMA had a systematic practice of permitting guests, who were often intoxicated by the alcohol sold by the museum, to sexually harass female museum attendants, including Ms. Gaytan,” she alleges in her lawsuit.

“Specifically, SDMA hosted events such as the ‘Culture & Cocktails’ and ‘Bloom Bash’ where unlimited alcohol was served to guests,” the suit added. “SDMA expressly and consistently advertised such events for their ‘signature cocktails’, ‘craft beer’ and ‘open bar’.”

The unnamed worker said the museum should release the results of the independent investigation it commissioned last year as a sign of good faith and solidarity across the workforce.

The museum did not pledge to release the findings last year, and last week declined to release the completed report, citing the ongoing litigation. It is scheduled for trial in February.

Employment lawyer Marisol Jimenez, who filed the lawsuit for Gaytan, said she has heard from other workers that conditions at the museum have not improved.

“The San Diego Museum of Art didn’t really take the complaint brought forward by my client very seriously,” she said. “I haven’t seen them take any corrective action, something to ensure the safety of people at these events.

“The employees don’t feel safe because nothing tangible was done.”

Museum officials say they have taken multiple steps to boost employees’ safety, including increasing training, boosting security and better equipping employees to respond to any incidents, among other efforts.

“We continue to encourage staff to come forward and report any harassment or other inappropriate conduct to their supervisors and leadership ASAP,” the museum said in a statement. “We have instituted various and increased communication options — including anonymous submissions — to do so.”

Museum officials said they have taken additional steps to keep their employees safe.

“Bartenders and security are trained to monitor and report guests who display signs of intoxication throughout the evening,” they said in a statement.

The Culture & Cocktails event is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado in Balboa Park. Tickets are $50 for members and $65 for non-members.

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