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AFTA councilmembers at a January 2020 winter meeting (courtesy of council members)

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Leaders in arts education are calling for the resignation of senior executives at Americans for the Arts (AFTA), citing failures by the nation’s central arts advocacy nonprofit to address racial equity and claims of harassment within the organization. 

In a letter released this morning, December 11, members of the Arts Education Advisory Council, an elected advisory board representing arts educators from across the country, outlined a series of demands for Americans for the Arts, including the immediate removal of its most senior leaders.

Signed by 14 of the council’s 15 elected members, the letter calls for sweeping changes within the C-suite, urging the resignation of president and CEO Robert Lynch, chief operating officer Mara Walker, senior vice president Marc Ian Tobias, and board chair Julie C. Muraco. 

“Questions from this council about AFTA’s racial equity work have been met with resistance, claims of capacity issues, and defensiveness,” the letter reads. “As leaders in our local and state arts communities who have each felt deeply the urgency of this moment, we have been exceedingly disappointed in AFTA’s response.”

The memo is a sign of mounting internal pressure at Americans for the Arts, which serves some 6,000 members from more than 1,500 arts groups across the country. Its critics have accused the nonprofit of positioning itself as a national leader on issues of diversity and equity while failing to respond to internal questions about transparency and accountability.

Further, it comes at a time when arts organizations across the country have been forced to deeply rethink their roles and responsibilities in the wake of a nationwide reckoning over race. Arts groups that were quick to position themselves as cultural leaders following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — sometimes merely paying lip service to the issue on social media — now face calls to get their own houses in order. 

Jenna Gabriel, an independent consultant on arts education for students with disabilities, says that it was just such an Instagram-friendly statement by Americans for the Arts that led the council to begin drafting the letter back in June. Instead of going public, the group decided to work with leadership privately to secure commitments on progress. Those efforts continued through conversations with senior leaders this week — but to no avail, Gabriel says.

“We felt at that point it was no longer about making strategic recommendations to an organization that had demonstrated a lack of willingness to change,” she says.

Americans for the Arts released a statement on December 3 announcing several changes meant to promote diversity and equity both within the organization and through its work. The board convened an equity task force, led by Abel Lopez, chair of the board’s cultural equity committee. Americans for the Arts also tasked a senior director, Ruby Lopez Harper, with formal responsibilities directing its diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) strategies.

In her new role at Americans for the Arts, Harper says that she will be focused on the organization’s external practices, developing strategies to center equity in its work with other arts organizations. She notes that a separate team has been focused on this task internally for the last 4 years. Americans for the Arts has engaged at least four DEI consultants since 2015. Some of that work is ongoing. 

“We’ve not done enough,” Lynch said in a conversation with Hyperallergic before the release of today’s letter. “We’ve not communicated as strongly or as quickly as we could have or should have. This was a busy year, but it doesn’t matter. We have to not only do the work but tell people how we are doing the work. I personally accept the responsibility.”

“We don’t generally discuss the details of our client engagements. I will share that we have supported them through organizational research, education, training and coaching for leaders and staff,” says Eric Ellis, president and CEO of Integrity Development Corp., whose services Americans for the Arts has retained since January 2018. “They have experienced individual and organizational growth in the time we’ve worked together and my work has been ongoing.”

The December 3 statement from Americans for the Arts came weeks after an op-ed appeared in Hyperallergic that first surfaced the organization’s internal conflicts. Its author, Quanice Floyd, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Arts Educators in Maryland Schools, says that Americans for the Arts only responded once the criticism became public.

“We’re not doing this to hurt the conversation,” says Floyd, a member of the AFTA council who signed the letter calling on Lynch and others to resign. “We want this to be the best organization it can be.”

The public statement from Americans for the Arts made reference to Floyd’s op-ed as well as another critical post that appeared in Medium on November 25. Signed by three former staffers — Jeff Poulin, Kate McClanahan, and Bridget Woodbury — this letter accuses senior leaders of promoting a “hostile work environment that is rife with bullying, intimidation, retaliation, and harassment for those employees who speak up about organizational wrongdoings.”

In its public statement, Americans for the Arts dismissed accusations of sexual harassment by Poulin. “These allegations have no merit. The former staffer is a litigant seeking a settlement,” the December 3 memo reads, without mentioning Poulin by name.

But a separate, private statement sent exclusively to arts service organization leaders and obtained by Hyperallergic dismissed Poulin’s complaints directly. “Mr. Poulin’s piece rehashes false and meritless allegations he already made in a complaint dual-filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as the D.C. Office of Human Rights,” the email reads. “He is, at this point, a litigant seeking a settlement; his piece may be read in that light.” 

Neither the public nor private memos from Americans for the Arts explicitly mentions McClanahan or Woodbury, co-authors who brought forward complaints alleging harassment and bullying. The pair tells Hyperallergic Americans for the Arts has yet to respond to them.

According to Lynch, the organization has retained an independent law firm to review the complaints. The firm will report to the board.

In response to this morning’s statement, a spokesperson for the organization said: “Americans for the Arts serves thousands of organizational and individual members and stakeholders, representing a diverse range of viewpoints. Its leadership serves at the pleasure of the Board, which has already committed to an investigation by a law firm independent of org leadership and staff.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Americans for the Arts President Robert Lynch at the annual Americans for the Arts Convention in 2017 (via Nancy Pelosi/Flickr)

Lynch has come in for particular criticism. The council members challenged his CEO salary as excessive: According to tax records, he received $952,000 in salary and other forms of compensation in 2018. The December 11 letter also calls on the incoming Biden-Harris administration to remove Lynch from his role on the agency review team overseeing the administrative transition for several art entities, among them the National Endowment for the Arts and the Smithsonian Institution. Lynch’s name has been floated as a potential chair for the NEA by several administrations.

“Mr. Lynch’s AFTA has failed at this task in every way,” the letter reads. “This moment calls for new leadership.”

Read the Arts Education Council’s open letter, reproduced in full, below:

*     *     *

Equity in the Arts Can’t Wait: A Public Statement from the AFTA Arts Education Council

December 11, 2020

As leaders on the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) Arts Education Advisory Council, we stand in solidarity with our colleague Quanice Floyd to publicly voice our support for calls on AFTA to increase transparency, accountability, and progress toward racial equity in its role as a national leader in the arts and culture sector. As Ms. Floyd articulated in a November 11th op-ed, questions from this council about AFTA’s racial equity work have been met with resistance, claims of capacity issues, and defensiveness — including pointing us toward AFTA’s 2016 cultural equity statement as evidence of AFTA’s commitment to work with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. As AFTA moves to capitalize on recent attention and posture as a champion of racial equity in their response, now is the time to be fully, publicly transparent about the work we have done.

In August, in our capacity as leaders on Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education Council, we offered AFTA’s CEO Bob Lynch a series of strategic recommendations meant to address the urgent issues facing AFTA and the national arts community, namely the monstrous impact of the sector due to the COVID-19 pandemic compounded with calls for institutional accountability following the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbrey, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others. These recommendations came from a place of both recognizing the ways AFTA has failed to live up to its potential as a national leader and from a deep commitment, in our positions as advisors, to working with AFTA’s leadership to move forward. They were further offered to Mr. Lynch at his explicit invitation, following our council’s questions and suggestions on a July 13th council call with Mr. Lynch and COO Mara Walker. Until Ms. Floyd’s op-ed, which continues to have the full support of this council, the content of these recommendations and notes from our conversations had not been made public.

As leaders in our local and state arts communities who have each felt deeply the urgency of this moment, we have been exceedingly disappointed in AFTA’s response. Their toothless blog post in response to Ms. Floyd’s statement immediately followed an announcement of Mr. Lynch’s appointment to the Biden-Harris transition Arts and Humanities Agency Review team and immediately precipitated a national AFTA fundraising campaign claiming, “equity in the arts can’t wait” — timing that underscores AFTA’s treatment of racial equity in the arts as an opportunistic moment of interest convergence rather than an urgent issue affecting the lives and livelihood of BIPOC artists, educators, and community leaders. More than 3 weeks after Ms. Floyd’s statement, Mr. Lynch made his first comments to AFTA’s membership and then to the public, offering praise and appreciation for her views — though in private meetings for the past six months, such questions have been dismissed. Indeed, Mr. Lynch positioned AFTA as responsive to her points, when in fact it was AFTA’s inertia on these issues that necessitated a public op-ed in the first place. As recently as in a December 9 conversation with this council, Ms. Walker still moved to highlight “investing in self-education” as a primary strategy in concert with a newly formed Board task force, deflecting calls for more tangible action and alignment opportunities with BIPOC-led arts organizations already leading in this work. We agree that equity in the arts can’t wait, but AFTA has shown they are incapable of leading this effort.

Since the publication of Ms. Floyd’s op-ed, countless AFTA members and organization leaders have lent support to her claims and inquiry. Last week, a group of current and former employees, Mr. Jeff Poulin (whom this group worked with for years, both in his former capacity as the council liaison and in our current roles as field leaders), Ms. Kate McClanahan, Ms. Bridget Woodbury, and others who chose to remain anonymous, published revelations of an AFTA culture of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, workplace intimidation, and abuse that continued with the knowledge and complicity of senior leadership, including Mr. Lynch, Ms. Walker, SVP Marc Ian Tobias, and Board Chair Julie C. Muraco. This has opened the door for others to voice their support and solidarity and to publicly wonder as to the value of their membership dues and affiliations with the organization.

Public attention must continue to focus on these systemic issues. In light of these events, we feel it necessary to publicly lend our voices in support of Ms. Floyd, Mr. Poulin, Ms. McClanahan, Ms. Woodbury, and the countless other individuals, organizations, and current/former council members who have publicly called for substantive change.

Equity in the arts can’t wait. It is clear now that the time has long passed for “strategic recommendations” to an organization with no desire to change. As leaders within the membership of AFTA, elected by our peers across the country to advise AFTA on “programs and services that will build a deeper connection to the field and network membership… [and] connect the national work of AFTA to [their] members’ work on the local level,” we call on the Board of Directors to take speedy and decisive action to address the issues of failed leadership, lack of action, transparency, accountability, and representation, and the culture of gate keeping and harassment outlined above by us and others.

We stand alongside the coalition of arts leaders across this country in demanding the following:

1. The immediate removal of CEO Bob Lynch, COO Mara Walker, SVP Marc Ian Tobias, Board Chair Julie C. Muraco, and any others against whom credible claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or other acts of workplace intimidation have been made;

2. The immediate retention of an external auditor charged with evaluating personnel policy and procedures, including staff hiring and compensation practice, through an equity lens and with investigating all claims of wrongdoing by current and former staff. We support a fair and expeditious settling of any pending EEOC complaints and we challenge AFTA to be uncomfortable with the idea of merely conforming to the standard for compensation among arts institutions. Instead, we encourage AFTA to set the standard for what fair compensation looks like, with particular attention to the workplace experiences of staff of color. We further challenge the notion that any leader of a member-driven organization should receive a compensation package in excess of 12% of the entire annual compensation budget, as the most recently available Form 990 indicates that Mr. Lynch has received.

3. Replacement of senior leadership with a CEO and COO who have a demonstrated commitment to equity and a deep investment in the ongoing work of creating an Americans for the Arts that is reflective of an inclusive definition of “arts” and a just representation of “America.” We expect to see a transparent process for recruiting, interviewing, and hiring new leadership that involves AFTA membership, including public interviews of leading candidates with the opportunity for membership to ask questions and offer a vote toward selection. If leadership is removed immediately, we would expect to see meaningful, public progress on hiring — if not final selections made by Summer 2021.

4. A restructuring of the Board that increases representation and transparency. AFTA’s Board must take meaningful steps to increase representation of BIPOC arts leaders; a list of suggested members was provided to Mr. Lynch in August by this council. Additionally, this transitional period necessitates transparency and accountability to AFTA membership. We request that while any audit is ongoing, the leaders of each member-elected council be invited to the table as non-voting members of AFTA’s Board of Directors.

5. A reallocation of wealth on meaningful outreach to create a membership in which Black, Latinx, Indigenous, queer, trans, immigrant, and disabled arts leaders, artists, and community members are represented. This must include the hiring of a full-time position dedicated to membership needs, as well as the articulation and implementation of an engagement strategy to further ensure that barriers to participation by these groups are removed and that as a member-driven organization, AFTA remains accountable to membership.

Finally, we urgently call on the incoming Biden-Harris administration to remove Mr. Lynch from their Arts & Humanities Agency Review team. At present, Mr. Lynch is the only task force member explicitly representing the arts and culture sector — a community of artists, culture-bearers, organizations, educators, and leaders he has proven his inability to meaningfully represent. Moreover, the arts and culture sector, which has been decimated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, should be a central piece of our country’s recovery efforts. If President-Elect Biden truly intends to “build back better,” we urge him to look to one of this country’s many BIPOC arts leaders who have shown us throughout the pandemic what real leadership looks like. Following an election that was largely decided by the efforts of BIPOC organizers, to leave Mr. Lynch in this position following the credible accusations leveraged by Ms. Floyd, Mr. Poulin, Ms. McClanahan, Ms. Woodbury, and others would be nothing short of shameful.

This council wrote to Mr. Lynch in August in the spirit of collaboration and with deep belief in the AFTA’s potential as a national leader. We stand today with the same hope for the future of Americans for the Arts. We also do so with fear for our colleagues and friends who are currently on staff at AFTA; accusations of retaliatory work practices give us cause to worry for their job security in the midst of unprecedented economic upheaval. America’s creative sector deserves a national leader that represents their communities, their constituents, their interests, and the diversity that has always been at the heart of the arts and culture. Mr. Lynch’s AFTA has failed at this task in every way. This moment calls for new leadership.

Unless the demands outlined above are addressed in a substantive, public way, this council is prepared to sever all financial relationships with AFTA, including renewal of membership and attendance at conferences/convenings. We are further prepared to cease our public support of AFTA’s outreach in the arts education field and intend to communicate our positions to the constituencies whom we support.

We look forward to the swift, decisive response from AFTA’s Board of Directors. Equity in the arts can’t wait.

Signed,

Erika Atkins

Rhoda Bernard

Kymberly Cruz

Quanice Floyd

Jenna Gabriel

Alex Gartner

Ashraf Hasham

Lauren Hess

Michael Jones

Kelly Pollock

T. Sandifer

Ahava Silkey-Jones

Nathan Street

Margaret Weisbrod Morris

Kriston Capps

Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab, the urbanism site for Bloomberg News. He is based in Washington, D.C.