Museum group calls for ouster of Detroit Institute of Arts director

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

An anonymous group saying it represents current and former Detroit Institute of Arts employees called for the ouster of director Salvador Salort-Pons on Monday, saying he has created a "hostile and chaotic work culture" that is especially dismissive of Black and Latino employees.

The public demand, distributed via Twitter, landed days after accusations of conflict-of-interest involving the loan of an El Greco painting currently on exhibit, loaned to the museum by Salort-Pons' father-in-law.

On Monday, the group calling itself DIA Staff Action posted a statement calling for Salort-Pons to "be removed from his role as director, president & chief executive officer and any other involvement at the (museum) by Aug. 31, 2020."

It said a more comprehensive list of demands will be forthcoming in the next week. The Detroit News reached DIA Staff Action via email, but questions posed via the account were not answered on Monday, including information such as how many current and/or former staff members it represents.

This furor arises just four months after residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties voted by wide margins to renew the tri-county millage that supports the museum two years before the present one expires. The millage provides the museum with about $25 million a year out of its $38 million budget. 

A native of Madrid, Salort-Pons became director in 2015, and proceeded to take a number of steps to boost diversity in staff and programming. Those include new Black board members, increased spending on African American art, and bias training for all staff and volunteers, according to the museum.

But recent turnover involving a number of Black or Latino employees has raised concerns, including the departure of two Black assistant curators of contemporary art, Taylor Renee Aldridge and Lucy Mensah, who were hired in 2017 and left the museum in 2018.

Neither responded to requests for comment.  Aldridge told the New York Times for a story last week that her experience was "emblematic of many abuses and systemic violences that permeate from the top down in museums, and especially the DIA."

Of their departure, Salort-Pons said in a written note to The Detroit News, "The first step is to diversify your team. But it is another thing to create an environment of inclusion where that team can be successful. I think we were unable to create an inclusive work environment for them that they would be successful in."

DIA Board Chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. issued a statement on behalf of the board Monday, reaffirming the museum's commitment to "diversity, equity, inclusion and access," and promised to open discussions with both current and former staffers.

The contretemps echoes similar complaints that have swept museums nationwide amid the Black Lives Matter movement — including the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art and New York's Guggenheim Museum, whose executives were accused of promoting "a culture of institutional racism."

Similar charges have been leveled against the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, with 60-plus former staffers and interns calling themselves MOCAD Resists signing a letter July 3 demanding the resignation of Executive Director and Chief Curator Elysia Borowy-Reeder for racial and cultural insensitivity.

This is not the first public inkling of dissatisfaction among DIA employees, current or former. An essay on by Andrea Montiel de Shuman explained her reasons for resigning as digital experience designer in June from the institution she still calls "a precious anchor."

Montiel de Shuman emphasized that she adores the DIA, but added, "In the past couple of years, the institution has been reshaped into a form that many of us cannot recognize — it is a contradictory, hostile, at times vicious and chaotic work environment," directed by "leadership that has fostered a totalitarian, oligarchic system."

Montiel de Shuman, an immigrant from Mexico, described a culture of racial and cultural insensitivity, and a bureaucratic tendency to dismiss input from employees of color.

"We have to remember and acknowledge," she wrote, "that the victims of systematic racism are not only those at the end of a gun."

It was not clear whether Montiel de Shuman is a member of DIA Staff Action or not. Efforts to reach her directly did not succeed.

The ethical issue involving the museum concern the loan of an El Greco painting to the DIA by Salort-Pons' father-in-law, Alan M. May, a retired developer in Dallas.

Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts

The painting is the 16th-century work, "St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata."

A whistle-blower complaint by current staffers has been filed with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, as well as the Internal Revenue Service, alleging violation of conflict-of-interest laws.

While loans to museums are commonplace, the display of a painting in a prominent art museum can increase its value. That makes displaying artwork loaned by a family member especially fraught, experts say.  

Salort-Pons defended the loan, saying all proper procedures were followed.

"Private loans to cultivate gifts of artworks from collectors is a common practice in U.S museums," he said in a written exchange with The Detroit News.

"The DIA can accept loans from museum officials (board members, the director and curators) and their families in accordance with the strictures of its policies, Salort-Pons added.

Sally Yerkovich, a Columbia University academic who's head of the ethics committee for the International Council of Museums, said it is technically possible to accept the loan of an artwork from a family member.

"But it's dicey. It could be done if you cross all your t’s and dot all your i's," she said, adding that the relationship would need to be revealed in advance to the museum and entire board of directors.

"It’s an appearance of impropriety question, mostly," she added, "when you get outside that closed museum universe, you can run into problems with public perception."

DIA staffers who raised the issue are represented by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Whistleblower Aid, which also intervened on behalf of the Ukraine whistleblower during the lead-up to President Donald Trump's impeachment.

"We think there are two reasons to be concerned" about the way the El Greco loan was handled, said John N. Tye, the organization's CEO, who added that they spoke with multiple current and former employees.

"It doesn’t appear that DIA leadership, especially the director and board chair, followed their own written policies on disclosure of conflicts of interest," he said.

The issue boils down to one of whether exhibiting a work like the El Greco could enhance the painting's resale value, which could hypothetically benefit the lender.

Tye added that the issue might also involve violations of IRS rules governing charitable organizations like the DIA.

"There are pretty complicated legal rules concerning 'private benefit' and 'private inurement' under IRS rules," he said, "and it is possible that the benefit received by Alan May and the director’s family constitutes violations of IRS rules."

Reached by phone Monday evening, May said, "I don't do interviews. Please contact me by writing," but hung up before answering where an email could be sent.

Salort-Pons said he followed the proper procedures in disclosing his relationship to May.

"I notified the Chair of the Board," he wrote, "and followed the DIA's Professional Practices Policy and Guidelines and Collection Management Policy, both approved by the DIA Board."

The museum's Professional Practice Policy and Guidelines, revised in September 2017, note in Section II.A.1 that whenever a conflict arises involving "an outside or personal interest of a Board member or that of a member of his/her family, that interest should be disclosed and made a matter of record."

A subsequent section adds that the same constraints apply to the museum director.

"Our policies do require disclosure," said Gargaro, "but permit loans by relatives of officials, whether board members or those in leadership like the director. Salvador reported that loan to me, and in addition, the lender Alan and I spoke about it."

He added that May made a similar loan in 2010, when the museum exhibited his "An Allegory of Autumn," thought to be painted by acolytes of Nicolas Poussin.

"Salvador was a curator at the time," Gargaro said, "and reported the loan and his relationship to (then-DIA Director) Graham Beal, and Graham reported that to me as chairman of board."

In that case as with the El Greco, he added, "We fully complied with the notice and transparency that our practice guidelines require."

In a statement released earlier in the day and signed by Gargaro, the board reiterated its support for Salort-Pons, and noted they've hired an outside law firm with no ties to the DIA to conduct an independent examination of the examine the museum's processes governing art loans.

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