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After 70 Former Workers Cite “Toxic Work Environment,” MOCA Detroit Terminates Executive Director

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

Following complaints of a “toxic work environment” by over 70 former employees, the Board of Directors of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) has terminated its relationship with former Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder.

On July 6, a coalition of former employees launched MOCAD Resists, a website documenting staff’s personal experiences at the museum. In a missive to the board, and in several individual letters of complaint reviewed by Hyperallergic, former workers at the museum recount instances of violent verbal outbursts, racist micro-aggressions toward staff and vendors of color, tokenization, and retaliation and intimidatory tactics by Borowy-Reeder.

After conducting an internal investigation, the board concluded that the terminated executive director’s leadership “fell short of its goals for diversity, inclusivity and a healthy work environment.”

“The Board’s vote to remove our Executive Director is a painful but first step of a course correct for MOCAD. We have tried to deliver on diversity, equity and inclusion since our inception. However, it is clear we need to do more, better and faster,” said Elyse Foltyn, Chair of the Board of Directors, in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. She added:

MOCAD’s plan of action going forward will affect our hiring and employment practices, artist relationships, internal communications and the Board’s by-laws, which define how we operate. We want to return to being a platform for everyone in the community and a venue to exhibit sometimes controversial art that might otherwise not be seen but inspires conversations. MOCAD’s board is excited about this new course and is eager to be an agent for change in Detroit and in the art world.

The allegations against Borowy-Reeder came as two Black curators resigned from their posts, specifically citing the executive director’s behavior: Jova Lynne, former Susanne Feld Hilberry Curator and Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow, and Tizziana Baldenebro, former Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow. MOCAD Resists’ letter to the board states that “from 2019 to 2020, within the span of six months, three Black curators either resigned or were laid off from the Museum.” (Former Senior Curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, who is also Black, resigned in late 2019.)

In her resignation letter, Baldenebro outlined a series of demands reiterated by MOCAD Resists: that Borowy-Reeder cede her role and the museum conduct a search for her replacement with a focus on BIPOC candidates; that the board allocate a third of its seats to diverse individuals from local communities and one seat to an elected employee representative; and that terminated and resigned employees receive rehiring preferences.

The New Red Order, a group of artists slated to open an exhibition at MOCAD this month, postponed their forthcoming show until the board of directors meets the letter’s demands for change. The group has also asked MOCAD to implement a land acknowledgement practice at the museum and provide a list of concrete actions demonstrating “a commitment to working to dismantle the ongoing effects of settler-colonialism, and to serve Detroit’s Indigenous community,” both of which Borowy-Reeder agreed to as a precondition of their exhibition.

“I am very pleased to learn that the MOCAD board has taken a first step in creating a better museum that truly reflects its mission and Detroit,” Lynne told Hyperallergic. “We are just at the beginning of an incredible opportunity for change. I trust that they will continue to do the right thing and consider the remaining demands from MOCAD Resistance and The New Red Order.”

The investigation was conducted by a special committee composed of board members Dr. Charles Boyd and Laura Hughes as well as Keith Pomeroy, board treasurer.


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