MOCAD Director Placed on Leave After Staff Allege Racism and Sexism

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder has been temporarily removed from her position on Tuesday following longstanding staff concerns about her leadership. The decision, made by the museum’s board of directors, came just five days after MOCAD reopened, ending a 17-week shutdown during the Covid-19 pandemic that has exacerbated internal grievances. 

In an email sent to staff Tuesday morning that was obtained by ARTnews, MOCAD board chair Elyse Foltyn said that Borowy-Reeder had been placed on administrative leave in light of “allegations of poor management and racial and gender bias (including harassment and bullying) from current and former employees.” The board, Foltyn added, has engaged outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations. It has also set up a confidential email and toll free telephone hotline to field further information. 

“It is critical for us to understand as much as possible about what has happened,” the board told ARTnews in a statement. “This will be a swift investigation and as more details become available, additional information may be shared.

Borowy-Reeder did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Last Friday, more than 40 former MOCAD staff sent an open letter to the board that accuses Borowy-Reeder of years of “racial microaggressions, violent verbal outbursts, retaliations, misrepresentation of community partnerships, and tokenization of marginalized artists.” It also lists five actions seeking redress, including Borowy-Reeder’s resignation; a board restructuring that better represents employees and local communities; and museum-provided resources to foster an environment supportive of working families. Staff also raised concerns about the museum’s relationship with its local community, saying that MOCAD must become a “contemporary art space that is FOR Detroit and FOR Detroiters.”

Joining their calls is the artist collective New Red Order, which is scheduled to open its first solo museum exhibition at MOCAD on Thursday. On Tuesday, in a letter echoing staff demands that the museum fix a “hostile work environment” that “reinforces racial hierarchies,” members Jackson Polys, Adam Khalil, and Zack Khalil informed MOCAD’s board of directors that they “respectfully insist” that the exhibition—the museum’s biggest one of the season—be postponed until board members commit to meeting all former staff demands.

Since Borowy-Reeder became director in 2013, the small but high-profile museum, which currently lists 15 employees in its staff directory, has seen a high turnover rate for full-time positions. Just last week, after celebrating the opening of the highly anticipated Conrad Egyir exhibition she coorganized, Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow Tizziana Baldenebro resigned, citing Borowy-Reeder’s “outright racist behavior” and “exploitative labor practices,” which she said were only amplified during the pandemic. Staff that the executive director laid off due to MOCAD’s halted operations were asked to “keep up the pace” and continue working while receiving unemployment insurance, Baldenebro wrote in her resignation notice, which prompted the open letter from former staff and which was reviewed by ARTnews.

MOCAD has also lost three Black curators within the span of eight months; their departures have all so far gone unannounced. Larry Ossei-Mensah, who assumed the position of Susanne Feld Hilberry senior curator in September 2018, left last November. In April, MOCAD’s second Ford Curatorial Fellow, Maceo Keeling, resigned after holding his position for three months. His departure coincided with that of Jova Lynne, who joined MOCAD in 2017 and was promoted to Susanne Feld Hilberry Curator in November (Borowy-Reeder removed the word “senior” from the title, Lynne said).

Lynne, who is MOCAD’s first Black female queer curator, told ARTnews that she experienced and witnessed racial microaggressions from Borowy-Reeder. The executive director treated Black artists with different levels of respect than white artists, Lynne said, and she often granted exhibiting artists of color smaller stipends. Lynne chose to resign this spring after receiving what she perceived as a threat from Borowy-Reeder—she recalled receiving a phone call from the director in which Borowy-Reeder allegedly attempted to pressure her into continuing to work while the curator was laid-off and out of town for a family emergency. On their last phone call, Borowy-Reeder allegedly told her it would be a “good time to resign” if Lynne could not agree to certain work conditions, and if she did not do so at that moment she would “spoil” their relationship.

“Nothing official was offered,” Lynne told ARTnews. “She was trying to push me out. I wrote an email saying I would not be returning.”

“I thought I would survive,” she added. “It was my dream job, bringing in a lot of local and international artists making amazing work in the margins who I thought were relevant for the Detroit community.”  

Concerns about the executive director have been brought to the board for years. In 2014, former curator of education and public engagement Katie McGowan and artist Gina Reichert sent board members separate letters detailing problematic behavior; their complaints went unanswered. In her email, which has been posted online by MOCAD Resistance, the group that issued the new open letter, Reichert wrote about a conversation she had with Borowy-Reeder in which the executive director blamed “blacks and immigrants for ruining the City, for forcing out her Polish family out [sic] and taking everything away from them.”

Miz Korona, a well-known Detroit emcee who worked as a visitor services associate from June of 2017 to August of 2019, said she filed at least three reports detailing alleged mistreatment from Borowy-Reeder, but her complaints went largely ignored.

“She had a habit of talking to us like we’re children and we’re incompetent, in front of patrons,” Korona told ARTnews. “She never respected me as an entertainer, and she would not call me by my performance name. It seems like she did it on purpose to try to make me feel small.”

The former employee also described being caught in many uncomfortable positions while working at the front desk. Borowy-Reeder would frequently shout at staffers while the door to her office, which is near the museum’s entrance, was open, Korona said, and she made visitor services associates execute tasks outside their official responsibilities without additional pay. Once, Korona overheard the executive director saying that members of MOCAD’s mostly Black teen council had to be taught how to speak properly so they could sell their art. 

Former employees expressed disappointment that inaction from leadership left them with no choice but to openly share their stories. Many who have spoken out and continue to share their experiences on a public blog fear professional repercussions in the art world, but they also want to fight for an institution they love.

“It is because I believe in MOCAD that I said something—I believe in its mission and the work it can do,” Lynne said. “I don’t believe in Elysia as a leader. Under her leadership, MOCAD cannot be a place where artists and community come first, and not as a prop or a token. I think it’s time that MOCAD gives itself a chance to create something new.”

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