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The Art of Discrimination 

Public art museums use legal loophole, deny benefits to domestic partners

Wednesday, May 29 1996
Domestic partners of some staff at San Francisco's most prominent public art institutions -- the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, the de Young Museum, and the Asian Art Museum -- are not allowed health insurance or retirement payments under the museums' benefits plans, despite city laws requiring that such benefits be extended to the domestic partners of all municipal employees.

"That's scandalous," says art world watchdog Jeff Jones. But it's also perfectly legal.

The museums, which receive millions of dollars from the city's coffers each year, are taking advantage of a loophole in the city's nondiscrimination statutes.

The statutes require that all benefits available to the legal spouses of city workers also be made available to the registered domestic partners of city workers. Those benefits include, but are not limited to, health insurance, child care, disability benefits, and family and bereavement leaves of absence.

Both the Asian Art Museum and the two Fine Arts Museums -- the de Young and the Legion -- are official city departments and are governed by a board of trustees formed under the City Charter. The directors of both museums are city employees. The Legion and the Asian have both received substantial amounts of money from voter-approved city bond issues for seismic retrofit and upgrades; the de Young is requesting $73.4 million in bond money for its own renovation.

But city money provides only part of the museums' operating revenues. The rest is provided through the two private foundations -- the Asian Art Museum Foundation and the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums -- that operate the museums jointly with the city.

And some employees of the museums are paid through the private foundations, rather than by the city. The private foundations are not city departments and are not bound by the domestic-partner statutes. Therefore, the museums do not legally have to extend coverage to domestic partners of those employees -- and they don't.

"We cover only employees," says Kathy Klinge, human resources director of the Asian Art Museum.

"The museum had said that when its health insurers were offering domestic partner coverage they would certainly look into it," says Pamela Forbes, media director for the Fine Arts Museums. And up until now, that hasn't happened, she says.

It's a policy that has real-life consequences for people at the museums, as Catherine Metzger, who now works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., found out three years ago.

Metzger had applied for the position of head painting conservator at the Fine Arts Museums. At the time she applied for the job, she says, the position was a city employee position, and domestic partner benefits were required to be made available.

This was important to Metzger because of her specific life circumstances -- her domestic partner had had cancer two years before, and the medical bills ran some $10,000 a year. Unless her partner could be covered under the Fine Arts Museums' health insurance plans -- as a legal spouse would have been -- Metzger says the two women could not afford to make the move west to San Francisco, where they wanted to live.

But by the time that she interviewed for the position, Metzger says, the head painting conservator position had been moved out from under the city's purview to that part of the museums' operations run by the foundation. This put the question of benefits up in the air.

At her interview, Metzger says, "When [museum Director] Harry Parker and [Assistant Director] Steve Nash said, 'Is there anything at all that would prevent you from taking this job?' I asked specifically about domestic-partner benefits," she says. "Neither Harry nor Steve knew the answer."

At dinner that night, she says, Nash told her that she could expect the job to be offered to her, and she asked again about domestic-partner benefits. The answer, when it came two weeks later, was bad news.

During those two weeks, a museum source says, the Fine Arts Museums did some calculations. Extending benefits to Metzger's partner would mean having to similarly cover the domestic partners of all other staff -- a total of four people. Some numbers got crunched, and the answer came up: No.

"We thought that San Francisco could be the answer," Metzger says. But lack of health and other benefits for her partner "just made it unfeasible. We decided we just can't move out there knowing she's instantly cut off from health insurance."

"I don't remember that being her issue," Parker says. But in any case, he says, "at that point it was not technically possible for us to get domestic-partner coverage."

Asian Art Museum Resources Director Klinge says that no one at that institution has ever asked for domestic-partner benefits. "We don't have any employees that have even requested coverage," she says. And if they did? The answer would be no, too.

At the Asian, staff members who are paid by the private Asian Art Museum foundation are insured through the Health Insurance Plan of California (HIPOC), an insurance pool set up by the state Legislature and governed by an appointed board of regulators in Sacramento. HIPOC allows coverage for spouses but not domestic partners, says Deputy Director Richard Figueroa.

"We don't determine who can be put in the plan," explains Klinge.
Which is kind of the same thing HIPOC says. "We generally look to the Legislature for a policy determination," Figueroa says. And given the current climate in the Legislature about same-sex partnership issues? "We do not anticipate a change," Figueroa says.

But the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering a change of its own -- one that will force the Asian and Fine Arts museums to provide coverage to the domestic partners of all employees, regardless of exactly who pays for their salaries. The measure, proposed by Supervisor Tom Ammiano, would require all businesses with city contracts to extend coverage to domestic partners of their employees. The proposal has seven co-sponsors; it needs only six votes to pass. And as for the effect on the museums?

"Probably minimal," an Ammiano staffer says.
Consider this: Two private museums, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts, already provide domestic partners with coverage through their health plans, according to staff members at those two institutions.

"It's something that we wanted to do," Beryl Kay, at the California Academy, explains.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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