In DIA director Salort-Pons, a disconnect between how he's seen inside, outside the museum

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts since 2015, faces ethical charges tied to the loan of an El Greco painting from his father-in-law, and what some describe as profound unhappiness among his staff.

As an index of the latter, in the last survey of employee satisfaction at the museum, those agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement, "The DIA provides a culture in which I can thrive," fell from 72% in 2016 to 53% the following year.

The Detroit Institute of Arts Director Salvador Salort-Pons poses for a portrait outside of the DIA in Detroit on Aug. 14, 2020.

For subscribers: Q&A with DIA director Salvador Salort-Pons

For his part, Spanish-born Salort-Pons says whether he survives the crises is out of his hands. "I serve at the pleasure of the museum board," he said, "and their support has been important to me over the past two months."

An apparent group of undisclosed former and current staffers that calls itself DIA Staff Action issued a missive in July describing a "hostile" work environment and an administration dismissive of women and people of color, many of whom have left over the past five years.

"The museum is like Dorian Gray," wrote former staffer Jillian Reese in a June 15 Facebook post referring to the Oscar Wilde novel of 1891, "a beautiful veneer masking years of horrible treatment of the staff." Reese worked on community programs for five years, resigning in 2020.

Much of the criticism is aimed directly at Salort-Pons.

"Salvador's management style is very aggressive, demeaning ...," said one former high-ranking staffer. The former staff member spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of damaging their reputation in the small exclusive museum community — a fear echoed by many others who've left the DIA.

"My question is why he would survive?" the former staff member continued. "Why would the board continue with someone who’s become notably problematic?"

The second crisis blew up this spring when unnamed employees filed a complaint charging conflict-of-interest violations in the loan of the El Greco painting from Salort-Pons' father-in-law.

Still, DIA board members mostly appear to back the director, though they have brought in a Washington, D.C., law firm to examine the ethics of the El Greco loan.

"I think Salvador has a lot of support," said Valerie Mercer, DIA curator of African American art. "I don't think he's going anywhere because the board likes him."

Lawrence Garcia, corporation counsel for Detroit who is secretary to the board's executive committee, agrees.

"I sincerely hope Salvador survives," he said. "And I believe that sentiment is shared by the entire board."

He added, "I became much more active in recent years because I agree with Salvador’s vision that the DIA needs to move towards proportional representation and equity. Calling him racially insensitive, or saying he’s insufficiently ‘woke,’ is ridiculous to me."

Other former staffers allege Salort-Pons has abandoned the "visitor-centered" philosophy pioneered by his predecessor Graham Beal that made the DIA an industry leader, and guided every aspect of the 2007 reinstallation and reinterpretation.

Salort-Pons disputes this. "We continue to operate as a visitor-centered organization," he said, noting that attendance has been increasing since 2012. "Being visitor-centered helps the DIA be relevant to our communities and attract them to our exhibitions and programs."

The concept goes beyond the jazzy labels with a big font and fun graphics, advocates say. The real goal is a museum-wide emphasis on meeting patrons where they are, and focusing on how they learn, connect with art, and what they value.

Rebekka Parker was an associate educator who left the museum in February over these concerns.

Asked whether Salort-Pons can survive, Parker said, "Of course he can. That would be the easy, 'safe' choice. The real question," she added, "is about what kind of institution the DIA wants to be."

Complaints about the other major issue, the loan of "St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata," boil down to two charges — that board Chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. didn't follow museum procedures when he approved the loan, and that exhibiting the painting could boost its resale value, thus enriching Salort-Pons' family.

Whistleblower Aid, the Washington, D.C., nonprofit that's representing dissident DIA employees, argued the loan should have been put to the entire board, and examined by its Committee on Professional Practices. 

Gargaro denies sidestepping policies. "There's no conflict of interest in this instance," he said, "and our policies and practices were fully complied with."

For his part, board member Garcia said, "I don’t know whether a violation of any rule occurred — I’m withholding judgment. However, I can say that if it did occur, in the grand scheme of things it would be a minor transgression. I don’t see a victim for this supposed crime."

Jeffrey Abt, author of the DIA history "A Museum on the Verge" and a Wayne State art professor, notes contrast between Salort-Pons' reputation within the institution and without.

"There are really two very different stories being told about Salvador," Abt said. "One is about the problems with staff and their complaints. But the story in the wider community is about his outreach to various constituencies in Detroit and the region."

Indeed, in recent weeks some African American elders in the Detroit art world defended Salort-Pons' engagement with the Black community — at the same time that other, younger individuals sided with DIA Staff Action.

Abt sees a generational divide in the museum world.

"A lot of younger people come into museums not because they aspire to be curators," he said, "but because they believe in the public role of museums, while the old guard hews to traditional questions of collection and preservation."

A longtime veteran of crisis management, Michael Layne of Marx Layne public relations, suggests Salort-Pons can ride this out.

"I would like to think Salvador can survive this," he said, "and that this can be a learning process leading to constructive change at the DIA. From what I can tell," Layne added, "he’s done an outstanding job of being out in the community and opening the museum up."

Ralph Gerson, also on the DIA board's executive committee, worries Salort-Pons may decide it's just not worth the effort and leave.

"I think the board's biggest concern of the board is that he will get discouraged," he said, "because this is all a little unfair. He’s being criticized for things he’s actually been a leader in."

Those hoping Salort-Pons will not survive are getting a little discouraged as well, and feel the museum has shown no interest in engaging with their concerns.

"It's important to keep in mind," said Parker, "that many of the people speaking out are doing so because of deep love for the institution, and a desire for it to be the best it can be."

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy