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MOCAD fires director; DIA group makes new demand

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

With both the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the Detroit Institute of Arts beset by scandals involving their directors, the crisis at the former, at least, has come to a head.

On Wednesday, the MOCAD board fired Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, following charges earlier in the month by over 70 former staffers and interns of abusive treatment and racial harassment.

Elysia Borowy-Reeder

The move occurs the same day DIA Staff Action Group called for Salvador Salort-Pons to be removed from his post as museum director. 

Borowy-Reeder was placed on paid leave July 8, pending the report of a three-person board committee that looked into the charges.

Elyse Foltyn, board chair, said in a release that the decision to remove Borowy-Reeder "is a painful but first step of a course correct for MOCAD. We have tried to deliver on diversity, equity and inclusion since our inception. However, it is clear we need to do more, better and faster."

In a July 3 email to the board, a group calling itself MOCAD Resistance accused Borowy-Reeder of creating "a toxic work environment" characterized by "various racist micro-aggressions, mis-gendering, violent outbursts ... and tokenization of marginalized artists."

The group also posted a screen grab of a 2014 email in which a local architect wrote the board to express her concern that Borowy-Reeder, who grew up in Hamtramck, complained about the influx of African Americans, saying they drove the Poles out.

In a statement sent to The Detroit News, Borowy-Reeder, who came to MOCAD in 2013, wrote that she regretted she had to learn about her termination via press release, "after an investigation I disagree with, and was not interviewed for."

She also alleged that despite her efforts to diversify her board of directors for a museum in a city that's 80% Black, "only six of 35 members are persons of color."

Borowy-Reeder reaffirmed her commitment to racial inclusion, and said she takes the workplace allegations "to heart, and am profoundly sorry for any harm I caused."

Supporters of MOCAD Resistance applauded the board's move to dismiss her.

"I’m pleased to see that they actually investigated and got to the root of the issues with Elysia," said Katie G. McGowan, who joined MOCAD in 2011 and resigned in 2014 as curator of education and public engagement after working with Borowy-Reeder for nine months.

"This is a really positive first step, but it’s only one of the steps laid out by MOCAD Resistance," she said, which also called for restructuring the board of directors to add an employee representative and members of economically and racially marginalized groups.

McGowan, who's now managing director of Kresge Arts in Detroit, said she was privy to a number of biased remarks from Borowy-Reeder: "I can list and list the racist things she said."

Ultimately, she added, "I left because I felt powerless. I felt like I was getting sick because all I did was fight. I was literally fighting with Elysia every week. I wasn't willing to take that kind of abuse."

In an interview with The Detroit News, board chair Foltyn said that only a very small number of board members saw the 2014 email citing Borowy-Reeder's remarks on demographic change in Hamtramck.

The email was not shared with other board members, she said, though the recipient did speak with Borowy-Reeder about the charges.

"I can tell you most of my board members and myself knew nothing about these issues," she said, "until we read the MOCAD Resistance allegations online July 3."

Foltyn added that the board is looking very carefully at Resistance demands, as well as suggestions from other quarters.

"Many of their demands are things we want to do," she said. "We’ll go through theirs and others we’ve gotten, and decide what’s best to position MOCAD as a community leader and agent for change in Detroit and the art world."

The search for a new executive director will begin, shortly, Foltyn said.

"But right now," she added, "we’re blessed to have capable, long-term, dedicated employees who can fill the void. Despite the recent turmoil," she added, "both employees and former employees are remarkably committed to MOCAD. They’ve said they want to be part of the rebuilding process. It’s really gratifying."

MOCAD, of course, is just one of two Detroit arts institutions reeling these days. Since DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons is also under attack, it's tempting to equate that case with MOCAD, but they're somewhat different, both in subject and severity.

A dissident group of current and former employees — DIA Staff Action — has accused Director Salort-Pons, who's held the position for five years, of creating a "hostile work environment" — much as Borowy-Reeder was by MOCAD Resistance.

The allegations against Salort-Pons focus on what some call cultural insensitivity and a governing style that slighted or ignored employees of color.

Borowy-Reeder, by contrast, was accused of outright staff abuse, and making statements that seemed far sharper than any attributed to Salort-Pons.

Additionally, the issues at MOCAD mostly revolve around staff treatment. By contrast, Salort-Pons came under attack as well for not following proper procedures in accepting a loan of an El Greco painting from his father-in-law.

Salort-Pons denies the charges.

Adding to the rush of news in the Detroit art world Wednesday, DIA Staff Action released an expanded list of their own demands.

The group had already called for Salort-Pons to be dismissed as director by Aug. 31. 

In their posting on change.org, Staff Action also called for a new staff-engagement survey to be conducted and released to all employees, as well as an investigation into "the multiple accusations of poor leadership, work hostility, racism, sexism and sexual harassment over the past five years."

They called as well for an inquiry into the "alleged misconduct and potential abuse of power" by Salort-Pons and DIA board Chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr., and an explanation of how the Washington, D.C., law firm pulled in to look at alleged ethics violations concerning the El Greco loan was selected.

And finally, the "Request for Immediate Action" asked that museum leadership and the board agree to ongoing dialogue with members of DIA Staff Action.

In response, the museum said in a prepared statement from Salort-Pons and Gargaro that they only learned of the petition late Wednesday after seeing it in a news story, and will review it to come up with an appropriate response.

"As we have previously communicated," the statement added, "we will listen to the input of current and former employees, along with independent experts, to inform decision-making, particularly in the priority areas of diversity, equity, inclusion and access."

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy