Detroit Institute of Arts board members resign in dispute over controversial director

Neal Rubin Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Six members of the Detroit Institute of Arts' board of directors have resigned in objection to the retention of the museum's leader, Salvador Salort-Pons.

The resignations from the 54-member elected board drew a measured response from the DIA and a pointed one from Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who commended the former directors for "taking a principled stand against workplace harassment and insular management styles."

A seventh director has resigned due to professional obligations, the DIA said, while one member of the non-voting emeritus board has also resigned.

Salort-Pons, director of the DIA since 2015, has been under fire since last summer over his management style and a perceived ethical breach involving the loan of an El Greco painting owned by his father-in-law.

A report to the board in November — leaked earlier this month through a surreptitious recording of the meeting — said current and former museum employees described Salort-Pons as "erratic, autocratic, condescending, intolerant of dissent and lacking in clear and effective communication."

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

Board chairman Eugene Gargaro Jr. told The Detroit News Monday that the resignations came after the board's 19-member executive committee decided to continue monitoring Salort-Pons' performance with methods adopted before the report. That committee included five of the departing board members.

"There was a consensus that favored continuing the action we took last year," he said. "Those who weren’t in that consensus elected to resign to reflect their views."

Those leaving are Anne Fredericks, Mary Ann Gorlin, Julie Rothstein, Suzanne Shank, Carol Walters and Celeste Watkins-Hayes, along with Marc Schwartz from the 32-member emeritus board. The board member who cited unrelated reasons is Christine Sitek.

The departure of seven women left the board with 25 women and 22 men. Gargaro, the chairman for 19 years, said there are "no plans I can share" about filling the open seats.

The News left emails seeking comment from Fredericks and Watkins-Hayes. The other former members could not be immediately reached.

The latest revelations regarding Salort-Pons were contained in a report from the Washington, D.C., law firm Crowell & Moring, hired by the DIA after a nonprofit group called Whistleblower Aid alleged conflict-of-interest violations involving the El Greco.

According to the DIA, Crowell & Moring found no issue with the loan of the painting owned by Dallas businessman Alan M. May, which theoretically could increase in value after hanging in a prestigious museum.

Other findings were less positive for the museum's director. As the board heard in November, and The News reported this month, the report said Salort-Pons retaliates against staffers who disagree with him and violated federal law by hiring applicants based solely on race or gender.

The report also found that women in management positions left the museum at a higher rate than men over the past five years.

Evans told The News that “these board members sent a strong message that grievances aired by women employees of the DIA must be taken seriously by the museum’s executive leadership and its governing board. I am proud these board members have stood behind the women who have brought forward credible allegations of retaliation, sexism, cultural insensitivity and a leadership culture that is misaligned with the mission and goals of the DIA."

The News reported in August that in the most recent 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.

That followed an anonymous communique in July from an apparent group of former and current staffers that called itself DIA Staff Action. The group described a "hostile" work environment and an administration dismissive of women and people of color.

In an email to staffers on March 19, Gargaro called the recording of the board meeting "unethical."

An email to the board Monday obtained by The News outlined efforts to “identify and recommend solutions to the serious issues we are currently addressing.”

The DIA board created a new role of board employee-relations liaison, established a confidential hotline and put in place a “performance plan” for Salort-Pons, which was reviewed and approved in mid-February by the executive committee and by the director.

During the past two weeks, the executive committee has met twice, Gargaro wrote.

“Additionally, I have spoken with Salvador, members of the museum’s senior management group, department heads, department members and numerous other employees so that ALL segments of our DIA family can be heard, especially those whose voices are not always at the forefront,” the email said.

“We are deeply appreciative of those that have connected with our Board Employee Relations Liaison via the confidential hotline, and have included those perspectives in our discussions. I have shared much of this advice with the members of our Executive Committee.”

On Friday, the executive committee met for a “frank discussion about our existing plan to deal with all the issues raised,” according to the email.

"While the board reached some consensus, some board members still disagreed with the majority of the Executive Committee and have chosen to resign."

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn