An exhibit by painter Peter Williams is one of the exhibits currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). (Photo: Ryan Patrick Hooper, Special to the Detroit Free Press)
While the white walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit currently showcase work by Black artists, the museum’s own reckoning on race and cultural insensitivity is part of a foundational issue facing institutions around the country.
The high-profile Detroit museum awoke from its months-long pandemic slumber with a vibrant splash of color from Detroit-based painter Conrad Egyir.
Egyir’s first solo MOCAD show expands on the west African storytelling traditions that have influenced his earlier works. This time, he’s scaled up to create some of his largest paintings yet.
Using repetition and fashion as a common thread, Egyir weaves mixed media flare into his show to explore, in part, the lasting influence of colonialism in three locations close to him — New York, Detroit and Ghana, where he is from.
The exhibit titled “Terra Nullius” — Latin for “nobody’s land” — is timely in both name and subject matter and featured alongside the “Black Universe” exhibit by painter Peter Williams, whose paintings of George Floyd recently hit the national spotlight.
Together, they are on display in a museum that’s feeling the ripple effects of the current protest movement that’s forced America to confront its legacy of racial violence, cultural chauvinism and inequity.
The exhibits are two of the best the city will see this year. But the curators who produced them, don’t work there anymore because, critics say, the MOCAD has a race problem — and it starts at the top.
A controversial reopening
An organized campaign against the museum’s executive director and chief curator Elysia Borowy-Reeder started earlier this month and now includes more than 70 former MOCAD employees, who have come forward with allegations of a toxic workplace culture and racial harassment.
The allegations were levied by the MOCAD Resistance, a diverse group of former staffers from different museum departments. Their demands include Borowy-Reeder’s resignation, an employee-elected board member seat, more racial diversity on the panel and better parental leave options for employees.
Monty Luke, former curator of public programs, said Borowy-Reeder’s tenure at the museum has eroded the trust between the local artist community and the museum, an anchor of Detroit’s cultural hub.
“She has created a toxic work environment at the institution which has spilled over into Detroit’s art scene at-large,” said Luke, who worked there for two years and signed the letter calling for Borowy-Reeder’s resignation.
“Socially speaking, Detroit is still a small town. When a major player such as MOCAD has such high turnover and so many individual stories of toxic working relationships and questionable business practices, it’s kinda hard to ignore,” Luke said.
Last week, the board of directors placed Borowy-Reeder on administrative leave. They vowed a “swift investigation” by an independent third-party to investigate claims that Borowy-Reeder engaged in “racist micro-aggressions, violent verbal outbursts … and the tokenization of marginalized artists.”
The ex-employees say the 34-member museum board was made aware of Borowy-Reeder’s behavior as far back as 2014.
“We are committed to taking every measure possible to ensure our employees, artists and the broader community enjoy a creative working environment that is respectful and inclusive,” read the statement released by MOCAD board chair Elyse Foltyn. “We have zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination or abuse in any form.”
Borowy-Reeder, who joined the museum in 2013 after serving as founding director of the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh, North Carolina, did not respond to numerous requests for comment from the Free Press.
The “MOCAD Resistance” has grown in numbers since the effort launched on the same day the museum reopened on July 2. It includes a website detailing the allegations against Borowy-Reeder.
In a screenshot of a 2014 email sent to the MOCAD board, artist Gina Reichert details a meeting with Borowy-Reeder where she reportedly lamented African Americans and immigrants moving into Hamtramck, which was once a Polish enclave decades ago.
The email describes the remarks as “sentimental racism.”
The website also includes a resignation letter from Tizziana Baldenebro, who previously held the position of Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow. (She is still listed on the MOCAD’s website as holding this position).
“The exploitative labor practices she has employed, outright racist behavior she has exhibited, and toxic environment she has produced have only been amplified by the pandemic,” wrote Baldenebro.
Baldenebro is the second Ford Foundation curator and the fourth curator of color to leave the museum since November of last year.
Since 2016, the Ford Foundation has granted $780,000 to the MOCAD in part to fund the Ford Curatorial Fellows program.
In a statement to the Free Press, a representative from the Ford Foundation wrote: “We take these allegations very seriously and will be reaching out to the Board of Directors to learn what steps they are taking to address these concerns.”
When former MOCAD senior curator Larry Ossei-Mensah was hired in 2018, the museum issued a news release about its new hire that garnered attention from national art publications.
Ossei-Mensah was a major arrival from New York to replace former chief curator-at-large Jens Hoffman, who resigned from the MOCAD in 2017 following sexual harassment allegations from his time working at another museum.
When Ossei-Mensah left in 2019, the museum didn’t announce his departure publicly. The departures of two other Black curators, Maceo Keeling and Jova Lynne, who worked at the museum since 2017, were also not announced.
Lynne says she was laid off in March because she wouldn’t meet certain demands Borowy-Reeder had made, like asking full-time staff to continue working for the shuttered museum as the employees themselves were collecting unemployment.
“They expected us to work while using our unemployment as payment,” said Lynne, a move that an employment lawyer told the Free Press could be fraudulent and a wage violation.
According to the MOCAD’s website, there’s currently 15 employees on staff including Borowy-Reeder, who is still listed as executive director.
Art institutions pushed to evolve
The MOCAD isn’t the only Detroit museum facing accusations of a lack of accountability.
In June, former DIA digital experience designer Andrea Montiel de Shuman, who is a Mexican woman, published an essay online announcing her resignation.
In it, she alleges a lack of concern and willingness from museum officials to listen to employees of color and to answer questions about how the museum engaged nonwhite audiences.
“It is a contradictory, hostile, at times vicious and chaotic work environment,” wrote Montiel de Shuman, who worked at the museum for six years. “The biggest burden I personally carry is the way museums censor the voices of their workers of color and our allies.”
In her essay, Montiel de Shuman also illustrated how culturally insensitive pairings of paintings without proper context could negatively affect young patrons.
In last year’s “Humble and Human” exhibition, the multi-gallery show highlighted the work of impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Paul Gauguin, who painted “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” completed in 1892.
The oil painting depicts a 13-year-old Tahitian girl named Teha’amana, who Gauguin took as his wife, naked on a bed. Gauguin, a Frenchman, was 44 years old.
“The label did not address that the artist sexually abused her, gave her syphilis, and colonized her home,” wrote Montiel de Shuman, who goes on to detail her own sexual abuses as a young girl in the essay.
In an email, Montiel de Shuman writes she “asked how the DIA was preparing front-line staff to handle conversations around power dynamics, colonial abuse and sexual assault — particulary of minors.”
Montiel de Shuman wrote that the human relations department at the DIA declared it was a personal issue for her and that the museum would not be a censoring institution.
The museum addressed Montiel de Shuman’s resignation in a statement:
“The Detroit Institute of Arts does not make media statements regarding individual employment matters. We respect the right of all employees to raise concerns both internally and outside the museum, and we listen and respond where appropriate,” the statement said. “The DIA remains committed to our staff and the community, while engaging with all audiences; this commitment is even stronger now as we face these historically challenging times together.”
Some experts say the recent allegations against local and some national institutions — including ex-employees at the New Orleans Museum of Art decrying “plantation-like culture” — is a reflection of the lasting Eurocentric influence on American cultural institutions, even as racial demographics and social attitudes in the U.S. are diversifying.
One art expert says the issues facing the country — a global pandemic, civic unrest focused toward police brutality — is impacting the art world.
“Exclusion at cultural institutions goes back to the beginning of cultural institutions,” said Steven Nelson, a Black art historian who taught African and African American art at UCLA for 20 years.
“At a certain point, I could count the amount of full African American art professors on two hands,” said Nelson, who laughed when he was asked how many other Black professors in his field he knew.
Nelson just started a new job this week after retiring from teaching.
Now Nelson is one of only 12% of people of color who hold an executive position at a museum. He’s the new dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
That’s an improvement of 1% since the landmark study of diversity in museum leadership was first conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2015.
Nelson says the lack of diversity at museums and other cultural institutions is a “systemic and historical” issue that reflects the overwhelmingly white origins of the art that’s hung in their galleries.
“We see the arts as this bastion of not only race but also class,” Nelson said. “If you are not white, if you are not upper middle class, you often see the arts in terms of careers that are not open to you.”
He says hiring a more racially diverse staff is only the beginning.
“Hiring is one piece, but also thinking about ways we deal with staff once they are in the door,” said Nelson. “We have to think about the ways we signal that places are welcome to people with different experiences. That’s critical.”
What’s next at MOCAD?
The fallout at MOCAD continues.
Last week, the artist collective New Red Order sent an email to the MOCAD board of directors insisting that their upcoming “Crimes Against Reality” exhibition — originally scheduled to open on July 9 — be postponed until the board met the demands of the former employees. Last Sunday, a portion of the exhibit (a video installation) was open to the public.
“From the beginning of our relationship with MOCAD, our interactions with Borowy-Reeder have been characterized by carelessness, racial insensitivity, tokenization, and neglect,” wrote the artist collective.
The New Red Order is led by a trio of Indigenous artists, including brothers Zack and Adam Khalil, who are Ojibway Native Americans from Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
On the same day the email was sent, MOCAD board member Terese Reyes also sent a memo announcing her leave of absence to the rest of the museum board.
Reyes is a partner in the Corktown-based contemporary art gallery Reyes Finn and has served on the MOCAD board since 2018. Her aunt — photographer and philanthropic force Julia Reyes Taubman — co-founded MOCAD in 2006.
Detroit-based artist and writer Sarah Rose Sharp has had her work exhibited at the MOCAD, while also being an outspoken critic of its programming. Sharp said the museum’s interest in having a seat at the table of the national art scene is a “missed opportunity.”
“I would rather see these (local) artists given the chance to elevate their practice and their work through institutional support than to see ‘blue chip’ out-of-town artists that are accustomed to working with huge budgets come to Detroit to do bootleg versions of their exhibitions,” said Sharp, who has previously written for the Free Press.
Last year, the museum exhibited high-profile shows from well-known contemporary artists like Kaws (who has a massive statue of his work in downtown Detroit), Eddie Martinez and Richard Prince, whose “New Portraits” show courted its own controversy after a local sex educator protested against her picture being used without permission.
Sharp said the MOCAD has hosted “brilliant programming” in the past, but that doesn’t excuse the allegations against Borowy-Reeder.
She argues that there should be a more equitable cultural exchange between Detroit’s arts community and the museum.
“If they’re importing artists to present in Detroit, they should be exporting Detroit artists to their wider network,” said Sharp. “It’s important that MOCAD leadership sees the incredible wealth of artistic and cultural talent in the city as an asset and a body to which they are accountable.”
Freelance writer Isabelle Bousquette contributed to this report.
Ryan Patrick Hooper is the host of “CultureShift” on 101.9-FM WDET. Follow him on Twitter at @HooperRadio
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