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MOCAD fires executive director after staff allege racism, mistreatment


The Board of Directors of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) announced Wednesday it had “terminated its relationship” with Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, following staff allegations of mistreatment and racial bias. Borowry-Reeder had been put on leave earlier this month.   


“Her leadership fell short of its goals for diversity, inclusivity and a healthy work environment, as determined by an independent investigation,” the Board said in a statement. 

In early July, some 39 former staffers (the list has since grown to 70) signed a public letter calling for Borowy-Reeder’s firing, accusing her of “abusive and retaliatory behavior” and establishing a “highly toxic and dysfunctional environment at the institution.”

“From 2019 to 2020, within the span of six months, three Black curators either resigned or were laid off from the Museum,” the letter said, pointing to what former staff described as Borowry-Reeder’s “racial microaggressions, violent verbal outbursts, retaliations, misrepresentation of community partnerships, and tokenization of marginalized artists.

“Numerous complaints about her behavior have gone unheeded by the Board of Directors over the course of her leadership. Letters from resigning staff from former curatorial, education and financial teams went unresponded to as early as 2014.”

Borowry-Reeder sent the following statement Wednesday evening:

"I was deeply disappointed to learn this morning from a press release that I was terminated from my contract by the MOCAD Board of Directors after an investigation I disagree with, and was not interviewed for. Transparency is important, and the investigation should be disclosed to the public. Over the past 8 years I have always worked hard for MOCAD, and I am extremely proud of my accomplishments. The institutions was in serious debt when I started. now there is an operating surplus. Annual attendance is up from 12,000 to 70,000. I have only received positive performance reviews and was given a raise just weeks ago. I have tried to conduct myself as a manager and leader so that my work is in line with my values, including acting on my deep commitment to diversity and inclusion through outreach, programming and engagement with arts of color, often without supoort. In a city that is 80% people of color, only 6 of 35 Board members are people of color. We have to do better. I take the workplace allegations that have been made to heart, and am profoundly sorry for any harm I caused. I am sincerely committed to the dignity of racial justice, to healing, and accountability."

The MOCAD shake-up comes at a time of reckoning for many major arts institutions, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, over what artists and employees say are deep-seated issues around race, leadership, and exploitation. 

In a statement, MOCAD’s Elyse Foltyn, Chair of the Board of Directors, described the firing as “a painful but first step of a course correct for MOCAD. We have tried to deliver on diversity, equity and inclusion since our inception. However, it is clear we need to do more, better and faster. MOCAD’s plan of action going forward will affect our hiring and employment practices, artist relationships, internal communications and the Board’s by-laws, which define how we operate.”


*This post was updated on July 30 at 4:00 pm.

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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