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DIA service workers demand $15 per hour minimum pay

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It was a day of developments on the twin crises besetting the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The unrest at the museum broadened with the release of an anonymous letter Thursday from "current and former service workers" appealing for a $15 minimum wage throughout the museum.

And Whistleblower Aid, the nonprofit advising museum employees who've alleged conflict-of-interest violations in the loan of an El Greco painting to the DIA by Director Salvador Salort-Pons' father-in-law, delivered an ethics complaint Thursday to both the museum's board of directors and the American Association of Museum Directors.

The Detroit Institute of Arts.

The complaint now includes DIA Board Chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. as well as Salort-Pons.

Whistleblower Aid had earlier filed ethics complaints with the Michigan attorney general and the Internal Revenue Service. The letter noted, however, that "based on the facts we have learned since June 28, we have no reason to suspect that any criminal laws were violated in this matter."

But it charges the two men with violating the museum's own written procedures on such loans when a personal relationship is involved. Both Salort-Pons and Gargaro have denied they failed to follow the rules.

The service-workers' letter, which was sent to and released by DIA Staff Action -- a group of more highly placed Black and Latino current and former employees who charge Salort-Pons with creating a "hostile work environment" -- was deliberately anonymous, it said, "for fear of retribution."

The workers, who cite DIA Staff Action and the MOCAD Resistance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as inspiration, wrote, "It is a shock to us that workers were still being paid as little as $10/hr," and note there's been no mention of hazard pay for employees who have to interact with the public during the pandemic.

The poorest-paid employees, the letter said, tend to be found in visitor and environmental services, the museum shop, guest sales, public programming, security and maintenance.

The appeal also demanded a $15 per hour minimum wage for part-time workers. "It is," they wrote, "simply not a lot to ask."

Their letter also noted that service employees are the public face of the institution -- the ones who interact with the visiting public the most, and are responsible for making a good impression.

In response, the museum issued a statement promising to continue to listen to both current and former employees.

"The museum can, must and will continue to make progress in supporting our team and our community, in order to best represent and serve Detroit and our region. The DIA remains committed to protecting our valued staff," the statement read, adding, "No team members have been laid off or furloughed since the start of the pandemic."

The DIA operating budget is about $38 million, of which roughly $25 million comes from the tri-county millage that passed in 2012 and was extended by the voters for another 10 years in March.

DIA Staff Action has always included pay disparities as part of their challenge to the way the museum's been run, and in an earlier document they sent out titled "Case Studies"  included a section on pay.

Building attendants, it said, make $10.50 an hour, security officers $11.25, guest-sales associates $11.45, and interns $12.50 an hour.

In 2017, the last year for which tax returns are publicly available, Salort-Pons' total compensation was $427,963, according to guidestar.org. Executive Vice-President Robert Bowen's total package was $259,766.

In all, the Internal Revenue Service Form 990 lists eight DIA executives and one co-curator who all earn over $120,000.

The Whistleblower complaint about the El Greco loan is that Salort-Pons and Gargaro both have personal relationships with the former's father-in-law, Alan M. May, who lent "St. Anthony Receiving the Stigmata," and that these were not fully divulged to the full board as the museum's procedures allegedly require.

At the heart of the issue is the allegation that exhibiting an El Greco at the DIA could boost its value in any future resale, from which both Salort-Pons and May could benefit.

Works by El Greco come on the international art market only rarely, and when they do, already pull mammoth prices. The highest to date was, according to the website mutualart.com, $13.9 million in 2013 for "Saint Dominic in Prayer."

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy