Ex-MOCAD employees allege racism, toxic workplace as museum reopens

On the same day the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit reopened to the public after being shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder was met with calls for her resignation by 39 former employees.
In a series of letters sent to current board members on Thursday, the former employees – curators, educators, store managers, cafe workers and even an unpaid intern – allege that Borowy-Reeder created a toxic workplace environment that included “racist micro-aggressions, violent verbal outbursts … and the tokenization of marginalized artists.”
Following a wave of layoffs for most museum staff in March and April due to the coronavirus pandemic, the letter argues that Borowy-Reeder’s seven-year tenure has been marked by mismanagement and
high staff turnover.
The letters state that in the span of six months, a trio of layoffs or resignations from Black curators began in late 2019 starting with former senior curator Larry Ossei-Mensah and curatorial fellow Maceo Keeling, and curator Jova Lynne earlier this year.
Lynne was originally hired to replace Ossei-Mensah.
“Elysia (Borowy-Reeder) does work super hard for MOCAD. She really advocates for the institution. The issue I have is the way she treats staff, vendors, artists and community partners,” says Lynne, who worked in two different curatorial roles across two and a half years at the MOCAD.
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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.
If employees didn’t, Lynne says, it would be reflected in their performance reviews and threaten their ability to be rehired when the museum reopened.
“(Borowy-Reeder) has a legacy of threatening people,” says Lynne. “This is just the first time where people are not afraid to say what happened to them.”
Borowy-Reeder did not respond to the Free Press’ request for comment.
As part of the letters signed “MOCAD Resistance,” current MOCAD Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow Tizziana Maria Baldenebro announced her resignation.
In her resignation letter, Baldenebro says the wave of departures is not a coincidence.
“This is a result of well-documented racism that the staff faced by Borowy-Reeder,” writes Baldenebro.
Lynne, who is a Black woman, says Borowy-Reeder “never walked into a room trying to be racist,” but that the things she was saying to Lynne and artists of color were
“inherently racist” but not necessarily intentional.
Lynne says that, during her tenure at the museum, the resources dedicated to artists of color was often less than what was allocated for supporting white artists.
Her decision to speak out was a challenging one.
“In going public with this, it came down to my moral compass,” says Lynne. “I wanted to support artists of color. I wanted to uplift the voices in the margins. For me to leave my dream job, it comes after two and a half years of grueling hurdles and threats.”
The letters obtained by the Free Press claim the MOCAD Board of Directors were aware of concerns from various museum departments dating back to 2014, including one written by former curator of education and public engagement Katie McGowan, who cited “racist, classist and erratic narcissistic examples of artist, staff and community partner treatment” by Borowy-Reeder as the reason why she quit.
According to Lynne, she’s unsure how aware the MOCAD board
is of Borowy-Reeder’s workplace demeanor, saying that several board members were “shocked” to hear Lynne didn’t work at the MOCAD anymore and may not have been informed of her layoff earlier this year.
The series of letters lists several demands for the MOCAD board to meet, including: the resignation of Borowy-Reeder, an employee-elected board member seat, more racial diversity on the b…