‘Autocratic’ DIA director presided over toxic workplace, audio recording of confidential meeting reveals

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click to enlarge "The Thinker" sculpture by Auguste Rodin ponders outside the Detroit Institute of Arts. - EQRoy / Shutterstock.com
EQRoy / Shutterstock.com
"The Thinker" sculpture by Auguste Rodin ponders outside the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detroit Institute of Arts director Salvador Salort-Pons presided over an "autocratic" culture at the museum that saw women quit at higher rates than their male counterparts and employees said made them feel they could not make formal complaints out of fear of retaliation.

That's according to attorneys from the Washington, D.C.-based firm Crowell and Moring, which was hired by the museum last year to conduct an investigation following allegations of a toxic workplace. The revelations followed interviews with 22 current and former DIA staff members and were brought to light in a Nov. 17, 2020 meeting between attorneys from Crowell and Moring, the DIA's own legal counsel, and its boards of directors, emeritus directors, and honorary directors.

In response to the concerns, DIA board chair Eugene Gargaro said the museum has taken a number of actions "toward a workplace that fully embodies fairness, inclusion, consistency, and respect," including working with a diversity firm, creating an Employee Relations Liaison, and establishing a confidential hotline for employees to report concerns. (See the end of the story for the full statement.)

Though the DIA's legal counsel requested that the meeting remain confidential and attendees not take notes, an audio recording burned on CD was obtained by the nonprofit law firm Whistleblower Aid, which represents DIA staff members who sought the firm last year over concerns regarding a conflict of interest after Salort-Pons's father-in-law loaned an El Greco painting to the museum. (Loaning a painting to a museum like the DIA can increase its value. The DIA said an internal probe later cleared Salort-Pons of wrongdoing, and pledged more transparency in the future.)

The recording of the confidential meeting was obtained by Metro Times. You can listen to it below.

Whistleblower Aid tells Metro Times the CD came with an anonymous note. "There was hope that this report by the law firm Crowell and Moring would have been the impetus for significant change," the note reads. "As you will hear the findings are extremely negative concerning the management style of the director Salvador Salort-Pons and the chairman is not making the hard decisions that are needed for the institution. Do with this as you think necessary."

Indeed, the recording does not exactly paint a favorable portrait of Salort-Pons, who has served as the DIA's director since 2015.

"I would say that former and current employees describe Salvador's leadership as erratic, autocratic, condescending, intolerant of dissent, and lacking in clear and effective communication," Crowell and Moring attorney Ellen Dwyer said in the recording.

"Both former and current employees recounted multiple instances in which Salvador retaliated against them for disagreeing with his viewpoint, for making complaints to the human resources team, or complaining to Salvador directly," Dwyer said. "The retaliation took different forms. Most commonly, it was described that if there was a disagreement — and often we heard this from women — if they disagreed with the direction that Salvador was taking, that they simply would be not included in the next meeting or series of meetings, and in some cases, that disagreement resulted in demotions."

This culture likely contributed to women managers and professionals leaving their positions in the museum at higher rates than men. According to attrition data cited in the meeting, 18% of women voluntarily left their roles at the museum compared to 6.5% of men in 2016, while 27% of women left compared to 2% of men in 2018, and 5% of women left compared to 3% of men in 2020, as of October of that year.

In some cases, the women left for higher-profile jobs elsewhere. But at least one woman simply left because "in her words, she could not bear working at the DIA anymore," according to the recording.

According to Crowell and Moring attorney Preston Pugh, while fears of retaliation in a workplace are not uncommon, "what we will say is having conducted many investigations ourselves, the extent to which this was pronounced was in a more extreme manner," he said during the meeting.

Also at issue were allegations that Salort-Pons on more than one occasion directed managers to hire employees based solely on race and gender, without regard to the candidates' qualifications. As a result, one of the employees, a Black woman, resigned, saying she felt she was the victim of "tokenism."

"That is actually unlawful conduct," Dwyer said. "It may feel odd because in fact, in the instances we found, he was directing someone to hire an African-American, and in another instance, he was directing someone to hire a woman. But that actually is unlawful under federal law. You're not permitted to make hiring and employment decisions based solely on an individual's race."

According to Dwyer, in an interview Salort-Pons said he did not think the hires amounted to tokenism. "I think in his mind, he thought that what he was doing was consistent with an appropriate sort of effort to diversify the museum, but he acknowledged that he had not provided the resources necessary to enable the employee to be successful at the DIA," she said.

The investigation also found that women in comparable roles to men were paid less. There were also allegations of "inappropriate relationships with others at the museum," but the attorneys said they could not find any evidence in their interviews to support those allegations. They did not elaborate.

Asked during the meeting if the violations of federal hiring law exposed the museum to possible legal action, Dwyer said yes, but believed the charges would likely be time-barred because they exceed the statute of limitations.

However, "outside of that context, I think the retaliation instances that we talked about, allegations of a sort of hostile environment, I do think that all of those create risk, legal risk, for the museum," Dwyer said.

On a positive note, Dwyer noted that many of the employees interviewed acknowledged that Salort-Pons's focus in recent years has been on financial sustainability for the museum. Last year, voters in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties agreed to renew a millage that will continue to provide the museum with about $25 million in taxpayer money annually.

"Both based on my conversation with Salvador, but certainly based on discussion with others and what we heard in our interviews, is that employees respected his contributions in that area," Dwyer said, adding, "I think that certainly when Salvador viewed his performance objectives, [they] were focused solely in his mind on ensuring the financial sustainability of the museum, and that's where he put his time and attention."

However, John N. Tye, the founder and chief executive of Whistleblower Aid, says the museum's obligations to the communities that help support it means it's important for the DIA to address issues of Salort-Pons's leadership.

"The board is not meeting its responsibility to the corporation, to the stakeholders, to the donors, to the taxpayers," Tye tells Metro Times.

"Clearly it shows very substantive leadership failures by the director of the museum, and by the board of directors that's supposed to be overseeing the director," Tye says of the recording.

In the recording, Dwyer said she saw only one performance review of Salort-Pons. It was written by himself.

"It was quite complimentary, I guess, maybe not surprising in some ways," she said. "But that's an example where I think there's opportunity for certainly more accountability." She described the self-evaluation as "unusual" for someone in his role.

Tye also says the recording vindicates his clients, and says it shows how important whistleblowers can be in bringing change to an organization.

"So much of this has come out because the whistleblowers were courageous enough to come forward," Tye says, adding, "It does show that whistleblowers can play an important role in getting the truth out and holding these institutions accountable."

Asked for comment, the DIA provided a statement from board chair Eugene Gargaro:
"Our Board has listened to the concerns about our leadership and culture, and takes them very seriously. Last year, we hired independent experts to review the situation and share their findings with the Board. In the months since, the DIA has taken important steps toward a workplace that fully embodies fairness, inclusion, consistency and respect.

This includes a new way for any member of the staff to safely bring concerns forward, with Vice Chair Rhonda Welburn serving as Board Employee Relations Liaison, providing employees a direct channel to the Board. The DIA established a confidential hotline for the staff to report concerns to the Board Employee Relations Liaison on a confidential basis, at any time.

For the past six months, the DIA has been working with a national firm to create a new employee-driven inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) program, which has been planned since 2019. Additionally, Director Salvador Salort-Pons’ performance is regularly monitored by the Board’s Executive Committee to ensure progress continues to be made in fostering a workplace where all employees feel valued for the talents, skills and unique perspectives that they bring to the DIA."

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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