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Under attack, DIA hires consultants on inclusion and diversity

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The Detroit Institute of Arts, roiled by allegations of staff mistreatment and a hostile work environment, has hired a Chicago-based diversity-and-inclusion consultancy to examine its policies and procedures across the entire institution.

The charges by former and current employees known as DIA Staff Action hit the news this summer. But in fact, plans for this review were already in place last year, when the museum won a $240,000 grant from the federal Institute for Museums and Library Sciences to promote "inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility" (IDEA).

The Kaleidoscope Group is leading the three-year project, which will start with a staff survey and assessment to measure just how included everyone feels.

The goal, said Kaleidoscope Executive Consultant Cheré Nabor, is to figure out "how we create a space where every employee has the opportunity to learn, grow and do their best work."

The survey, which will include all staff, will give the consultants "an opportunity to see what the lived experience" at the museum is, she said.

Detroit Institute of Arts Director Salvador Salort-Pons has come under attack for what some describe as a hostile work environment at the museum.

After the assessment, consultants will help plot a road map focusing on organizational needs and an action plan for the next two years to effect "transformational change."

Nor is this simply a question of minority representation.

"Sometimes people think 'diversity' is just about race, gender or sexual orientation," Nabor said, "but it's also about a broad background of skills and experiences, and how those get included and honored in a meaningful way."

This goes to the heart of the complaint from DIA Staff Action about a negative and "chaotic" work culture under Director Salvador Salort-Pons.

Their Aug. 31 petition to DIA leadership and the museum board described an institution where "staff, especially Black, indigenous, people of color and women, are unable to thrive," a predicament they say has led to an exodus of women and minorities over recent years.

The group, which did not respond to a request for comment, has called for Salort-Pons' dismissal.

For his part, Salort-Pons said the IDEA project has been on his mind since 2016.

"A year after I became director, we created a museum group called Reflecting Our Community, which recognized the need for internal work around the issues of inclusion," he said, noting that those had to be addressed "before we could institute real growth and change in the organization."

He dismissed the idea that this is all about optics or public relations, arguing that the money and time the museum is investing demonstrate the review's seriousness.

"This project is very important because of the inequity and systemic racism that permeate all levels of U.S. society," Salort-Pons said. "This was true when we first applied for the grant, but in the past few months the nation’s attention has been drawn to these issues even more clearly. So there’s an urgency."

He said he's eager to get going, even if the study finds the problems start at the director's door.

"We are open to change at every level of the organization," Salort-Pons said. "I can assure you we will work with Kaleidoscope Group to solve problems and implement cultural transformation. It’s the culture," he added, "that matters."

Crisis-management veteran Jeff Caponigro said that engaging the Kaleidoscope Group, even if that predated this summer's difficulties, is a positive step toward repairing the recent public relations damage.

Still, he'd like more.

"It will be interesting," Caponigro said, "to see if the announcement, which could be seen as a way to take heat off the situation and buy some time, will also include transparency of the firm’s findings, recommendations and initiatives taken by the DIA to create meaningful change."

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