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MOCAD Director Placed on Leave After Former Employees Pen Letter Citing “Toxic Work Environment”

Over 70 former employees penned a letter denouncing director Elysia Borowy-Reeder’s leadership. Their claims are bolstered by several letters of resignation and complaint from current and former staff members.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (photo by Kevin Slavin via Flickr)

After months of upheaval at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), more than 70 former employees of the institution penned a letter to the board of directors denouncing a “toxic work environment” at the helm of Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder. The group alleges instances of racist micro-aggressions, tokenization, violent verbal outbursts, and intimidatory tactics and retaliation that have impacted workers across the organization, but especially Black staff and staff of color. The board has since placed Borowy-Reeder on a temporary leave, but many concerned workers continue to advocate for her removal.

“Our complaints went unchecked and ignored, while our jobs and the careers of our colleagues were threatened. A number of us were publicly berated, manipulated and gas-lit when advocating for our programs, artists, transparency in grant-based funding, staff, teams and positions,” the group of former staff writes. “The Executive Director’s behavior caused extreme trauma and mental anguish that many of us are still recovering from.”

Both current and former staff have cited Borowy-Reeder’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, claiming she pressured laid-off staff to continue working and accept unemployment benefits in lieu of museum payroll. Earlier this year, MOCAD laid off all of its full-time staff, with the exception of six employees, in a cost-saving measure related to the shutdowns. While the museum eventually received a forgivable Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan and rehired many of these workers, some were skeptical about taking up their posts again. 

Their claims are bolstered by several letters of resignation and complaint from current and former staff members sent in the past few weeks and reviewed by Hyperallergic. The New Red Order, a group of artists slated to open an exhibition at MOCAD, has asked that their forthcoming show be postponed until the board of directors meets the letter’s demands for change.

“We cannot in good conscience tacitly support an institution whose leadership instills a culture of fear and reinforces racial hierarchies that our work aims to dismantle,” NRO said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic.

NRO, which describes itself as a public secret society and is facilitated by Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys, also asks MOCAD to follow through with a promise that was a precondition of their participation in the exhibition: a land acknowledgement practice at the museum tied to “a commitment to working to dismantle the ongoing effects of settler-colonialism, and to serve Detroit’s Indigenous community.” The group says Borowy-Reeder agreed this acknowledgement would be accompanied by “a list of concrete actions that demonstrate this commitment” which was to be released “by the end of the year.” In light of recent developments, NRO has asked that the museum board re-confirm this commitment and timeline, in addition to meeting the staff’s demands, before its show can open.

Under mounting pressure, the board of directors temporarily removed Borowy-Reeder from her position yesterday, July 7. In an email to museum staff, MOCAD Board Chair Elyse Foltyn said that the museum would engage outside counsel to conduct “an independent investigation into the allegations of poor management and racial and gender bias” against Borowy-Reeder and that the director would be “on an administrative leave” in the meantime.

On Monday, July 6, a coalition of former employees launched MOCAD Resists, a website documenting staff’s personal experiences at the museum, in the wake of the recent resignation of Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow Tizziana Baldenebro — one of the latest staff members to step down from their role. Though her fellowship was extended for six additional months, Baldenebro decided to terminate it, citing “grave concerns about the state of our leadership.”

“MOCAD has lost three Black curators within a six-month span of time, all within my brief time at the Museum,” Baldenebro wrote in her letter of resignation, reviewed by Hyperallergic. “This is not a coincidence, this is a result of well-documented racism that the staff faced by Borowy-Reeder.” Baldenebro refers to the recent departure of Jova Lynne and Maceo Keeling, two Black curators. (Former Senior Curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, who resigned in late 2019, is the third.)

Lynne, the museum’s former Susanne Feld Hilberry Curator and Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow, chose not to return to the museum once the PPP loan came in. In an interview with Hyperallergic, she said Borowy-Reeder would regularly lowball vendors of color and threaten to ruin the reputation of artists and community partners who spoke out against her, meanwhile asking employees to skew or inflate the museum’s diversity numbers and other data in grant proposals to potential funders.

Ultimately, she says years of verbal abuse by the director, combined with her unwillingness to offer Lynne flexibility as she dealt with a coronavirus-related family emergency during the unemployment period, influenced her decision not to come back.

“One time on the phone she was yelling at me and she wouldn’t stop. I started laughing and she asked me why and I said, ‘laughing is better than crying,'” said Lynne. “It was mental olympics. The way she treated me specifically as a Black woman, I know she never spoke to a white male curator that way. The tone, the nature in which she would speak to me, were flagrantly oppressive. I couldn’t take it.”

In her resignation letter, Baldenebro outline a series of demands also echoed in the former staff’s missive: that Borowy-Reeder cede her role and the museum conduct a search for her replacement with a focus on BIPOC candidates; and that the board allocate a third of its seats to economically and racially diverse individuals from local communities and one seat to an elected employee representative. Terminated and resigned employees should also receive rehiring preferences, she says, and the museum should offer paid parental leave.

“I can no longer allow myself to be complicit and silent. I have encountered and witnessed micro-aggression in my role as Ford Curatorial Fellow. I have been explicitly tokenized, and at one point was asked by Borowy-Reeder if I (a Brown woman) identified as white,” Baldenebro writes, adding that her own experiences “pale in comparison” to those recounted by other employees of color.

In another letter of complaint to the board sent last weekend, a current employee who prefers to remain anonymous described being asked to continue working while they were temporarily laid off as well as being denied parental leave, instead being forced to use days from their allocated PTO to care for their newborn child.

Erin Moran Martinez, the former Youth Program Producer at MOCAD, sent a formal complaint against Borowy-Reeder, alleging her “racist and classist tokenization of black/brown youth and youth in poverty” in the program; silencing participating teens’ voices; “retaliatory and harassing behavior” and “email harassment” toward employees who spoke up.

Martinez led the museum’s Teen Council and managed other youth programs since she assumed the role in November 2018 and until the position was eliminated this year, purportedly due to pandemic-related financial cuts. During this period, she says she witnessed Borowy-Reeder advertise the Teen Council as an initiative “for youth, by youth” while limiting the young participants’ say in programmatic decisions. Martinez claims the director also gave preferential treatment to the children of board members who sought to join the program.

In one instance, Martinez writes in her complaint letter, “I told her very flatly that I did not think it was right and that the young person could wait until next fall to apply, like everyone else. Elysia had told me previously that she reserved the right to put a child onto Teen Council, as a benefit to potential donors and/or board members.”

“It’s not as if this issue of using the presence of Black and Brown youth bodies as cultural cache is new, or even unique to MOCAD,” said Martinez in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Many institutions have long used both the smiling faces and trauma stories of BIPOC youth in an attempt to raise institutional cultural legitimacy, as well institutional funds.

“That tokenizing behavior is particularly egregious in this case because Detroit is a majority Black city, full of brilliant BIPOC youth cultural leaders,” Martinez added. She continued:

They do not need saving by white-led institutions.  They need equal access to institutional platforms and resources, in order to act on what they deem as important cultural work.  The members of the majority Black and Brown MOCAD Teen Council, are brilliant, thoughtful, innovative, and revolutionary, and they always inspired me with their passion and vision for themselves and their peers.  I want to see them have a legitimate place of leadership, equal with adult peers, within their own community’s contemporary art institution.  They are more than capable.

MOCAD has not responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.

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