MOCAD director on leave following charges of racism, abusive treatment

The board of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit placed Executive Director and Chief Curator Elysia Borowy-Reeder on paid leave Monday, following charges by almost 70 former employees and interns of abusive treatment and racial harassment.

A group calling itself the MOCAD Resistance emailed the board on July 3, accusing Borowy-Reeder of creating a “toxic environment” characterized by “various racist micro-aggressions, mis-gendering, violent outbursts … and tokenization of marginalized artists,” actions that resulted in “extreme trauma and mental anguish.”

When staffers complained to her, the letter added, they often suffered retaliation.

On Wednesday, the board, chaired by Elyse Foltyn, issued a statement promising a “swift investigation” by an independent third party, avowing that the museum takes “concerns being raised by the community seriously.” A confidential email address and toll-free hotline, the statement added, have been set up to invite further comment. 

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Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, left, chats with Harold Arts Founder Joe Jeffers in this file photo. (Photo: The Detroit News file)

Borowy-Reeder, who came to MOCAD in 2013 from the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was founding director, won plaudits in Detroit for compelling exhibitions and a talent for fundraising.

Efforts to reach Borowy-Reeder were unsuccessful.

Katie McGowan joined MOCAD in 2011, and resigned in 2014 as curator of education and public engagement after working with Borowy-Reeder for nine months.

“I witnessed a lot of ugly stuff,” said McGowan, who’s now managing director of Kresge Arts in Detroit.

“I left because I felt powerless,” she said, “and felt like I was getting sick because all I did was fight. I was literally fighting with Elysia every week. I wasn’t willing to take that kind of abuse.”

McGowan charges Borowy-Reeder with harassing a young transsexual, raging about an employee at a staff meeting when that individual was not present, and complaining about the racial shift in the demographics of Hamtramck, where Borowy-Reeder was born.

“I can list and list the racist things she said,” McGowan added, “and I had it much better than some younger staff and people of color. I was older and had options. My abuse was nothing compared to what they endured.”

Jova Lynne, the museum’s Susanne Hilberry Curator who first came to MOCAD as a Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow, was laid off in April with the rest of the staff. She’d worked at the museum since 2018, and called it her “dream job.”

“I never wanted to leave,” said Lynne, who’s African-American. “I was pushed — or threatened — out.”

Lynne concedes that Borowy-Reeder was a “fierce advocate” for MOCAD, and good at “raising money and dealing with institutional needs — she just wasn’t good at dealing with staff, artists and community partners. We need a leader who can do both.”

She says she wasn’t sure how much of all this the board actually knew. But a July 6 blog posted on the MOCAD Resistance website includes a screen shot of a 2014 email to the directors from a Detroit artist and architect concerned about comments Borowy-Reeder reportedly made about Hamtramck, and immigrants and African-Americans who’d moved into the one-time Polish enclave.

“The thing about racism,” said Lynne, “is that sometimes it’s intentional, like with neo-Nazis or the KKK. But it’s often more complicated than that, and not overt. There were racist comments made, but no use of the ‘n-word.’ But they were offensive all the same.”

This isn’t the first time allegations of harassment have roiled MOCAD. In 2017, Jens Hoffmann, chief curator at large who held positions at several museums nationwide, was accused of sexual harassment by employees at New York’s Jewish Museum. He resigned from MOCAD shortly thereafter.

The MOCAD Resistance letter called on Borowy-Reeder to “cede her role,” and urged the board to mount a national search for a replacement that would focus on candidates of color. Additionally, the letter demands that a third of the board be comprised of “economically and racially diverse individuals,” with one seat reserved for an elected employee representative.

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