“Field trips spark students’ imaginations, encourage discovery and allow students to step outside the familiar to experience a diversity of cultures and perspectives,” director Salvador Salort-Pons has said. (Photo: Courtesy DIA)
The national reckoning on racism and cultural inclusion has reached the hallowed halls of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
A group of current and former staffers announced plans Monday on Twitter to deliver a full set of demands via petition to museum leadership and the board of directors next week. But on Monday, the DIA Staff Action group (DIASA) also announced their first demand: that museum director Salvador Salort-Pons be “removed from his role” by August 31.
The group alleges that Salort-Pons, who has led the museum since 2015, is largely responsible for fostering a toxic work environment and ignoring the voices of workers of color — resulting in a steady turnover of talented employees.
“I can say for myself that I saw racism and experienced misogyny nearly every day at the DIA,” said Jillian Reese, who worked on community programs at the museum between 2014 and 2020.
“The museum is like Dorian Gray: a beautiful veneer masking years of horrible treatment of the staff.”
The DIASA announcement comes just weeks after a similar move by MOCAD Resistance — a group of former employees of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit — who demanded change at the museum, including the resignation of executive director and chief curator Elysia Borowy-Reeder. The MOCAD director is on administrative leave pending an investigation.
The formation of DIASA also comes on the heels of a public resignation letter posted by former DIA digital experience designer Andrea Montiel de Shuman. In the letter, posted on the blogging site Medium, she describes the work environment at the DIA as “contradictory, hostile, at times vicious and chaotic.”
Montiel de Shuman, who is a Mexican immigrant, alleges a lack of “cultural competency” at the museum, exemplified by the DIA’s handling of one particular painting. During an exhibition in 2019 entitled “Humble and Human: Impressionist Era Treasures,” the DIA was loaned a Paul Gauguin painting that depicted a 13-year-old Tahitian girl named Tehamana lying face-down naked on a bed.
Montiel de Shuman wrote: “The label did not address that the artist sexually abused her, gave her syphilis, and colonized her home.” She added that it was additionally troubling for her because she “was immediately transported to the terror I experienced as a young girl after being molested by a worship leader.”
Salort-Pons said he was aware that “this painting was a painting that needed special attention.” He said “the team worked very hard on putting together a label and a text that addressed the issues or the elements that were important to tackle for people to understand the painting.”
The label did acknowledge that Tehamana was 13 years old and included the following sentence: “While depicting a young nude model lying on a bed was consistent with French artistic traditions, today Gauguin’s approach to the subject matter calls attention to racial and sexual power imbalances during the era of European colonialism.”
Montiel de Shuman approached leadership about the painting because she was concerned both for school groups and communities of sexual abuse survivors who regularly visit the DIA. She said she was told that “this was largely a personal issue” for her.
Salort-Pons said he did implement some of Montiel de Shuman’s suggestions, including forewarning school groups about the painting prior to museum field trips. He added: “I think Andrea would have liked us to have done more.”
For Montiel de Shuman, the incident was an example of how she says “museums censor the voices of their workers of color and our allies.”
“(Montiel de Shuman’s) experience is not singular,” said Stephanie Taylor-Coleman, a Black woman who worked as a graphic designer at the DIA between 2017 and 2020. Taylor-Coleman added that she feels there is “a lack of cultural sensitivity” in the museum, which, she notes is situated “in a majority Black city.”
Salort-Pons, who moved to the United States from Spain in 2004, worked in the museum’s European Art Department before he was appointed director in 2015. Since that appointment, he has spoken extensively about diversity and racial inclusion.
Salvador Salort-Pons, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, photographed in the Rivera Court at the museum in Detroit on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (Photo: KIMBERLY P. MITCHELL, Detroit Free Press)
In a director’s letter in November of that year, he outlined what he hoped to accomplish, writing: “I would like to walk into the museum’s offices and extraordinary galleries and see that the DIA has become the mirror of our diverse society. The benefits of diversity and inclusion — of everyone working together to consider different voices, perspectives, and backgrounds — are immense and waiting for us to embrace them.”
Salort-Pons instituted a paid internship program at the museum. He also launched an initiative called Reflecting our Community. The goal was for “the demographics of our visitors to mirror that of the tri-county area.”
However, some staffers say they feel a disconnect between Salort-Pons’ public statements about diversity and the reality of how the museum actually functions.
“The leadership direction that the organization’s taken in the last, I would say, four or five years was really just all about optics,” said Jenny Angell, who worked in the museum’s education department between 2010 and January of 2020.
In fact, several of Salort-Pons’ former employees who spoke to the Free Press wonder whether he can fully grasp the needs and the experiences of the Black Americans who make up the majority of Detroit’s population.
In 2017, Salort-Pons hired Lucy Mensah and Taylor Renee Aldridge, two young Black women, as assistant curators in the contemporary art department.
Mensah and Aldridge curated a show titled “Making Home” later that year. However, in 2018, they both resigned. Mensah said she knew she was a “token hire.”
“Taylor and I were fully aware of what the director hoped to achieve by hiring us,” Mensah said. “He was making a statement that the DIA was moving in the right direction in terms of diversity and inclusion.”
Mensah said that when she began, she was excited about the opportunity and hoped to have a long career at the DIA.
She added that leaving “definitely wasn’t a decision I made lightly.” However, she described a “toxic work environment” that made it “virtually impossible for me to stay at the DIA.”
Reflecting on the experience, she said the DIA “premise some of their hires as a way of diversifying the voices of the institution, but at the same time they don’t actually appreciate those voices.”
Angell also said that the museum has had a “token attitude towards inclusion,” adding that “the efforts to actually make staff members who are Black or people of color feel welcome and feel like they actually had a voice in the organization was practically nonexistent.”
When asked about the departures of Mensah and Aldridge, Salort-Pons said: “One thing is to diversify your team. Another thing is creating an environment of inclusion where that team that is diversified can be successful. And I think we were unable to create a sustainable work environment, inclusive work environment, for them that they would be successful in.”
He added that Mensah and Aldridge “brought a lot of value to the organization and also taught me a very important lesson that you have to create an inclusive work environment.”
“I will never know the struggle of Black Americans because I came from another country. For me, as a European, I have to learn everything about the Black experience in America,” Salort-Pons said. “Even being an immigrant here, I was afforded a great deal of privilege, so my goal is to learn as much as possible so I can help the DIA to be responsive to our communities.”
Staff turnover indicates culture problem
Many former employees report witnessing considerable staff turnover during the past five years at the DIA. Reese, who worked at the museum between 2014 and 2020, said: “What I saw while I was at the DIA was a huge transformation … from an organization where you regularly had people spending 20, 30, 40 years to an organization where you can’t keep people in position.”
Salort-Pons said that in 2019, the staff turnover rate was 9.6%%, which is less than the national average for nonprofits of approximately 12%. A 9.6% turnover at an organization the size of the DIA would equate to about 36 people leaving that year.
Some of the staff departures have been notable industry leaders who are credited with creating the “visitor-centered” foundation of the DIA. Jennifer Wild Czajkowski was the lead interpretive educator in the museum’s comprehensive five-year reinstallation of 2002 and 2007. She left in 2018, after 25 years at the DIA. Swarupa Anila was the director of interpretive engagement until she left in April of this year. She had worked at the DIA for 20 years. It’s fair to say that Czajkowski and Anila played integral roles in making the DIA “the world’s most visitor-friendly museum,” according to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article. They both now work at the Royal Ontario Museum.
One former employee said that because of these departures: “I believe in a lot of ways the museum has lost its soul.”
A current employee noted that “a lot of the more notable departures in staff have been women,” adding that the museum has taken on “an air of chauvinism that really creates a difficult work environment.”
Teri Johns, the former director of educational programs who retired earlier this year, said “there has been considerable turnover.” She added: “I’ve never looked at that data from a gender perspective.” She also clarified that people have left the museum for a range of reasons, including retiring, going back to school or receiving significant promotions in other museums.
For Angell, it was a mix of the two. “Part of why I left was I got offered a far better opportunity to really do a deeper dive on that work that I wouldn’t have been able to do at the DIA,” she said, adding: “Part of the reason I left was because of the fairly toxic work environment there.”
A former employee who resigned said: “I can tell you right now, I did not want to leave the DIA … but at some point, you realize it’s like beating your head against the wall, and your self esteem and your self-worth starts to take a hit.”
Salort-Pons is aware that some employees have struggled with the work environment at the museum. He said that before he became the director, the goal of the DIA was “visitor-centered,” adding: “When I became director, I said, yes our goal is visitor-centered, but we also have to be county-centered.”
He describes this as a “25-degree shift in the direction of the organization.” Salort-Pons said: “I think change can be difficult for some people. And we work and we try… as much as possible to help the staff manage change.”
A staff survey reveals dissatisfaction
Between June 26 and July 12 of 2017, the DIA conducted a Staff Engagement Survey. This was the first survey that would have reflected an entire year of Salort-Pons’ leadership.
The survey displayed a marked decrease in staff engagement. It measured staff engagement in 20 different categories, including whether employees thought the museum was a “culture to thrive,” whether “teams work together” and whether employees were “excited about work.” A comparison with the previous year revealed that staff engagement had decreased in 17 out of those 20 categories, some by as much as 19%. Staff engagement stayed the same in two categories. It increased in one category (“understanding the strategic goal” increased by 2%).
Employees were also encouraged to write in comments. The survey revealed comments from employees who felt “they experience disrespect, elitism and condescending attitudes from particular staff or departments” and employees who “find management and leadership styles repressive, citing micromanagement and disrespect.”
In response to the survey, leadership decided to close the museum for a daylong all-staff retreat in September 2017. Reese recalls that furniture was rented and brought into Rivera court and that leadership sat on lucite chairs atop a stage. There were roundtable discussions about what everyone could do to make the museum better. Then there was a catered lunch. Staff were also treated to massages and a performance by an improv group.
One employee recalls tha “we literally and figuratively built bridges between tables out of construction paper.” He remembers the whole day as “tone deaf” and “appallingly embarrassing.”
Reese said that on the day “we did not create any sort of plan.”
“I think we made some missteps in our immediate response,” said Salort-Pons. He recalls the day, saying: “I think we were not as thoughtful with this as we should have been.”
However, he added that he hired a consultant and “we developed a cross-departmental task force to … identify the issues, come up with recommendations, and we moved those initiatives forward very diligently until we started to work on the renewal of the millage … with a lot of focus.”
There has not been another staff survey since.
Salort-Pons said this is because “we wanted to implement all the initiatives that we had with our consultant. So therefore once we implement them and we test them, we will do a new staff survey.”
While the internally climate is debated, some say the museum has made significant strides in the community.
Since a chance meeting with director Salort-Pons, Henry Harper, a fine art and antiques advisor, said he’s seen a more deliberate effort by the museum leadership to “connect with the hood” including Salort-Pons and his wife, Alex May, visiting the breakfast club and inviting the group to the museum.
“They have invited us as a marginalized, under-served community into the hierarchy of the once reserved cultural enclave of exclusion,” said Harper, who co-founded the Detroit Fine Art Breakfast Club in 2009.
The weekly gathering is now hosted online, but when it was held in person at Noni’s Sherwood Grill on the city’s northwest side, it was often a packed, standing-room only meeting of artists and collectors from around the city, critiquing and sharing art amongst each other in an auction-style setting over traditional breakfast platters and club sandwiches. All walks of life are welcome, but Black collectors and artists are often the largest demographic in attendance.
Harper, who has lived in Detroit since 1992, said he’s watched the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts evolve since his time here.
“Early on, there was a lack of connectivity to the museum for me as an African-American,” said Harper, citing the “vast and far ranging” lack of diversity in the collection.
Harper said last year’s “Detroit Collects” exhibition at the DIA, which highlighted Black collectors and their art, was a “groundbreaking exhibition. “These community outreach programs have never happened in the history of our beautiful Detroit museum,” said Harper.
Millage campaign, coronavirus caused more stress
The board of directors voted to approve the campaign for the second millage in November 2019; however, leadership at the DIA had been thinking about it long before that. Salort-Pons joked that the DIA started thinking about going for the second millage, “maybe in 2012,” (the year that the first millage passed).
The campaign for the second millage “definitely increased tensions,” said one current employee.
Salort-Pons said that during that time: “I asked [staff] to do a lot. There was a number of exhibitions that we did very quickly. We brought exhibitions that the museum normally didn’t do like (an exhibition on) baseball cards or (the) Star Wars (costume exhibit).” He added: “Our goal was to be as inclusive as possible. We wanted to reach everyone.”
“I think that’s where the museum has had a lot of problems, trying to be everything to everybody,” said Angell.
Rebekka Parker, who worked in the education department between 20011 and 2019, felt that the museum stopped “focusing on the things that we actually do there and the things that make the museum successful” and became “an intense political machine.”
The second millage passed on March 10, right when the COVID-19 pandemic began to cripple the city. For many employees, the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing issues within the museum. That was certainly the case for Montiel de Shuman, who handed in her official resignation in June.
When she decided to post her resignation letter publicly, Montiel de Shuman said some people told her “it would be the end of my career.” However, in many ways, it has been the opposite, she said. Since coming forward, she has received an outpouring of support from the museum world that has opened up further opportunities for collaborations.
After her letter was published, the museum released a message from the director on equity. In the letter, Salort-Pons referenced a three-year grant the DIA received “from the Institute for Museum and Library Studies (IMLS) for much-needed work on inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA).” He also said the museum was in the process of delivering training “which deals with dimensions of diversity, implicit bias and cultural understanding” to its entire staff and the board of directors.
One current employee said she felt the tone of this note was “defensive rather than apologetic.” She said that rather than having an external group come in to facilitate diversity training, “We just need to be heard.”
Isabelle Bousquette is a freelance writer, specializing in arts and entertainment.
Freelance writer Ryan Patrick Hooper contributed to this report.
* This story will be update throughout the day as the news develops.
A snapshot of DIA community/staff initiatives
- Paid internships to allow students from a wide range backgrounds to learn about the museum industry.
- Significant board diversification led by the Talent and Diversity Committee.
- Secured funding for expanded Black History Month programming with community input.
- Increased spending on the acquisition of African American art.
- Expanded programming and exhibitions, including 30 Americans, Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement, D-Cyphered, Detroit Collects: Selections of African American Art from Private Collections.
- Implicit bias training for all staff and volunteers.
- Secured grant funding for a three-year inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility project.
- Robust partnerships with several community organizations, including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, Inside Out Literary Arts, Hannan House, Mack Alive, Concert of Colors and others.
- No staff layoffs or furloughs to date, protecting the jobs of junior-level team members, the museum’s most diverse.
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