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.
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.”
Related: Art activism: Stories behind murals, street paintings and portraits created in protest
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.