Fired MOCAD director hires lawyer, charges museum board with unfair treatment

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The recently fired executive director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, is fighting back.

She's hired Melvin Butch Hollowell, one of the Detroit area's most-prominent African-American attorneys, to represent her in her contention that she was dismissed by the MOCAD board without being allowed to defend herself — an omission Hollowell says may have violated her federal civil rights.

"Elysia's been treated terribly," said Hollowell, who spent four years as corporation counsel to the city of Detroit under Mayor Mike Duggan. "Everybody is entitled to fair treatment, and she has not received that."

MOCAD's board chair disputes that. "On repeated occasions through her counsel," Elyse Foltyn wrote in a text, "we proposed many dates and times. Unfortunately, we were never given a time for the interview we requested."

Borowy-Reeder, who came to MOCAD in 2013, was let go July 29 after an investigation for the board by Allison O'Neil of the Boston law firm Locke Lord LLP. The inquiry was prompted by the MOCAD Resistance, a group of over 70 former employees and interns, that posted an online broadside calling for Borowy-Reeder's dismissal, accusing her of racial insensitivity and creating a toxic work environment. 

At the time, Borowy-Reeder emailed a statement to The Detroit News in which she said she was "deeply disappointed to learn this morning from a press release that I was terminated from my contract by the MOCAD Board of Directors after an investigation I disagree with, and was not interviewed for."

Elysia Borowy-Reeder

For his part, Hollowell does not dismiss the MOCAD Resistance allegations out of hand, saying, "Everyone deserves to be heard and listened to. I can tell you that as a civil rights lawyer. We fought hard for equal rights and due process, and Elysia should not be an exception to that."

In a short memorandum emailed to The News, he noted that Borowy-Reeder was in almost daily contact with her board throughout her seven years, which "did not object to (her) day-to-day activities and conduct, and interface with employees, contractors and artists."

The memo also noted she'd taken over a museum that was in debt but now enjoys a surplus, and that under her tenure attendance rose from 12,000 visitors a year to 70,000. 

Hollowell maintains that Borowy-Reeder filed a written request asking to be interviewed, and noted that the board over the years signaled its support with a contract extension, raises and bonuses — including a $5,000 bonus awarded June 4 for her handling of issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.

And in a case revolving around charges of racial slights and "tokenization" of black artists and staffers, Hollowell alleges the board failed to act on a number of proposals Borowy-Reeder put forward to create a more inclusive museum environment.

Foltyn dismisses that, adding that any attempt to paint the board as racist — six of its 35 members are African American — is "offensive."

At present, Hollowell is still in discussions with MOCAD's attorney. No litigation has yet been filed.

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