The Detroit Institute of Art (photo via Flickr)

In mid-June, Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit legal aid organization that supports employees who seek to expose unlawful activity taking place in private companies and the government, sent a letter to the commissioners of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) with the subject line: “Detroit Institute of Arts Does Not Meet AAM Criteria for Accreditation.” It was signed by John M. Tye, who in October represented Frances Haugen — the Facebook whistleblower who revealed that its algorithm was geared to sow discord and that the company knew Instagram was responsible for body image issues in adolescents. The letter reiterated complaints about museum leadership that were originally aired in 2021, when a recording of a confidential meeting was leaked and published by the Metro Times.

Changes are “long overdue” at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), the missive alleged. It cited findings that had been reached in DIA’s own independent investigation, which the museum hired the law firm Crowell & Moring to conduct. Salvador Salort-Pons, who assumed the position of director, president, and CEO of the museum in 2015, had “on more than one occasion” told staff members to hire applicants solely on the basis of race and gender with no regard for qualifications, the investigation found. And a disproportionate number of those who left during his directorship were women: In 2018, for instance, 27% of women in managerial and professional positions left their roles, in contrast to only 2% of men. Some former and current employees indicated to investigators that Salort-Pons had retaliated against employees who had brought forward complaints to him or human resources.

The letter urged that the AAM not re-accredit the museum. It invoked several specific AAM criteria for accreditation that it believed the DIA failed to meet, including compliance with local, state, and federal laws; the ethical management of its collections; and its commitment to accountability and transparency.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a DIA spokesperson said that “the claims made by Whistleblower Aid revisit anonymous allegations from two years ago.” Crowell & Moring’s investigation, she added, “concluded that the crux of the allegations were without merit.”

“While we were relieved to learn of the findings of the report, through the process we recognized there was room for improvement in how we engage with all of our valued constituencies,” the spokesperson continued. “To that end, the DIA initiated a process of heightened engagement with its internal constituencies designed to facilitate open dialogue within the institution and promote the ongoing advancement of the museum’s culture and operations. We are proud of the success of this initiative and the DIA is fully committed to a process of continual improvement and enhancement of our practices.”

Since reporting in March 2021 about leadership failures at the DIA, “things have only gotten worse,” Tye told Hyperallergic in a recent interview. That same month, at least six board members resigned in protest when the board’s executive committee elected to reappoint Salort-Pons to another five-year term as director. Members of both staff and the board have left over their dissatisfaction with Salort-Pons’s and board chairman Eugene A. Gargaro, Jr.’s leadership, Tye said, adding that “there are fewer and fewer people involved in the museum who have any clue what’s going on and have any interest in fixing things.” 

Despite paying Crowell & Moring $741,380 for its fact-finding mission, its findings were not made public until the audio leak. Tye says that the museum has never so much as acknowledged receipt of Whistleblower Aid’s disclosures, suggesting, in his view, that leadership is disinterested in genuine reform. 

Since Whistleblower Aid first began representing employees at the DIA, Tye says he has spoken with “well over a dozen” current and former staff and board members “whose lives have been affected by two very ineffective leaders.”

“Whistleblower Aid is based in DC and deals mostly with government cases,” Tye said. “We never thought we would be bringing disclosures for an art museum. But every time I think this case has run its course, new people — current and former staff and board members, none of them who know each other’s names — are all coming to me independently with almost identical concerns from different vantage points. They’re desperate: They love art and it really affects them personally.”

Another longstanding dispute concerns a museum loan of a $5 million El Greco painting made by Salort-Pons’s father-in-law. In 2020, Whistleblower Aid complained that the loan was made without sufficient transparency around potential conflicts of interest. 

On June 21, Whistleblower Aid also sent a letter to Michigan state officials urging that the state investigate DIA’s violations of state nonprofit laws and employment laws. Despite the well-documented history of transgressions at the museum, Tye says that the Internal Revenue Service, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and Michigan state officials have all failed to hand down appropriate punishment for the museum leadership’s misdeeds.

“No one responsible for enforcing that the museum is in compliance with the rules and the laws have been doing their jobs,” he said.

Each re-accreditation from the AAM remains valid for ten years. While there are no immediate concrete consequences of an institution losing its accreditation, the AAM lists some of the benefits of accreditation as heightened credibility with donors and funding groups, better relationships with other institutions, and an improved public image.

A spokesperson for the AAM told Hyperallergic that the organization was aware of Whistleblower Aid’s letter but declined to comment further, citing a policy that does not allow the organization to discuss a museum’s accreditation status. The AAM’s Accreditation Commission meets three times a year, in February, June, and October, and typically announces final decisions several weeks thereafter.

“If the AAM re-accredits the DIA with all of the evidence — even of their own lawyers saying that they broke all these laws — what does accreditation mean?” Tye asked. “It’s obviously meaningless at that point.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.