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A recording of a confidential meeting at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) last November, leaked and published by the Metro Times yesterday, reveals longstanding workplace issues at the museum helmed by director Salvador Salort-Pons.
In the meeting, attended by DIA’s board and legal counsel, attorneys of the DC-based firm Crowell and Moring shared the findings of their 2020 investigation into allegations of a toxic work environment at DIA. The firm conducted interviews with 22 current and former museum staffers, many of whom described Salvador’s leadership as “erratic, autocratic, condescending, intolerant of dissent, and lacking in clear and effective communication,” said the firm’s attorney Ellen Dwyer in the recording. Workers accused the director of retaliating against them if they disagreed with his views or filed complaints with the Human Resources department.
Crowell and Moring’s research also brought to light gender disparities in the museum. According to attrition data cited in the recording, female employees have left their roles at DIA at a disproportionately higher rate than their male colleagues: in 2016, 18% of women voluntarily left their positions at the museum compared to 6.5% of men; 27% of women left compared to 2% of men in 2018; and 5% of women left compared to 3% of men in 2020.
Several workers interviewed by the firm also said they believed their race was a factor in the way Salort-Pons engaged with them, particularly regarding hiring decisions.
“Most of them recounted, I would say, his lack of facility with race-related issues,” Dwyer explained in the meeting. “More directly, we found evidence that Salvador on more than one occasion had directed museum employees to hire applicants based solely on their race without regard for their qualifications.”
Dwyer goes on to cite an instance in which a Black woman who had no art background or museum experience was hired as an assistant curator of contemporary art, later resigning and complaining that she had been “a victim of tokenism.”
“That is actually unlawful conduct,” she continued. “It may feel odd because in the instances we found [Salort-Pons] was directing someone to hire an African-American, and in another instance, he was directing someone to hire a woman, but that actually is unlawful under federal law. You’re not permitted to make hiring and employment decisions solely based on an individual’s race.”
DIA hired the firm to conduct the investigation last year, but the findings shared in the meeting had not been made public until now, after an audio recording was sent anonymously to the nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid. The company represents DIA staffers who filed a complaint of ethics violation last year when Salort-Pons’s father-in-law loaned an El Greco painting to the museum.
“In the months since, the DIA has taken important steps toward a workplace that fully embodies fairness, inclusion, consistency and respect,” DIA Board Chair Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. That includes streamlining systems for employee complaints, including establishing a hotline for staff to report concerns to a recently-appointed Board Employee Relations Liaison on a confidential basis.
“For the past six months, the DIA has been working with a national firm to create a new employee-driven inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) program, which has been planned since 2019,” Gargaro added. “Additionally, Director Salvador Salort-Pons’ performance is regularly monitored by the Board’s Executive Committee to ensure progress continues to be made in fostering a workplace where all employees feel valued for the talents, skills and unique perspectives that they bring to the DIA.”
John N. Tye, founder and chief executive of Whistleblower Aid, told the Metro Times that the recording “shows very substantive leadership failures” by the DIA’s director and board.
“So much of this has come out because the whistleblowers were courageous enough to come forward,” Tye said. “It does show that whistleblowers can play an important role in getting the truth out and holding these institutions accountable.”