Former Wadsworth Atheneum Employee Who Resisted DEI Initiative Claims Termination Violated Free Speech

A former curatorial administrator at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum filed a civil claim against the museum alleging leadership violated her first amendment rights when they terminated her for questioning museum Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion policies.

The claim was filed in federal court on Wednesday by the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative-leaning nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Kate Riotte, who served as a curatorial administrator for three months before departing her position in March 2021.

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A front view of the Wadsworth Atheneum, an art museum in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Wadsworth has not been served official court documents and is “precluded” from commenting on the dispute, a spokesperson for the museum told ARTnews. “We will take appropriate action in court to defend against it as needed.”

According to court documents reviewed by ARTnews, in February 2021, the museum formed a task force to develop policy for staff to address racial equity, where Riotte served as a voluntary member. In March, two members heading the task force, Anne Butler Rice and Joe Bun Keo, distributed an internal email to the committee members with materials outlining the new DEI policy, and requesting feedback on the draft.

Riotte alleges that museum leadership terminated her over internal correspondence discussing the drafted policy, in which she questioned the reasoning for the DEI initiative. (Rice, the museum’s director of education and Keo, an art handler, did not respond to ARTnews’s request for comment.)

According to the claim, Riotte questioned the reason for the task force’s “focus on equity,” asking why it was “essential for the growth” of the museum and describing it as being potentially “detrimental to the organization.” Riotte requested that the task force provide an official definition for “systemic racism” that appeared on the museum’s website. In internal correspondence outlined in the claim, Riotte wrote, “why is advancing racial equity, specifically, something seen as being attainable, and even desired?”

In 2020 and after, museums in the United States moved to instate official DEAI policies among staff amid a national protest movement that pressured institutions to address racial inequities following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd. This past October, the American Alliance of Museums updated its standards for museum workforces to implement DEAI policies. It was the group’s first update to staff guidelines since 2005.

Riotte said in the claim that she was subsequently terminated over the internal comments, and the museum’s operational director, Michael Dudich, cited her expression of views as “highly confrontational to the Museums [sic] core espoused institutional values,” as the reason for her release. (Dudich could not be reached for additional comment.)

The committee followed through and implemented the policies, a museum representative told ARTnews, adding that the policies “are manifest in our near term decision and future planning,” and that the museum is “committed to a safe” work environment.

“No matter the position, we take issues of free speech very seriously,” they added.

Riotte is seeking reinstatement at the museum and is claiming monetary damages as a result of her termination. Riotte declined ARTnews’s request for comment.

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