‘I want to hear. I want to learn’
It has been a season of controversy for Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts since 2015, who was beset by two crises that erupted almost simultaneously.
One concerns a possible conflict of interest involving the loan of an El Greco painting, “Saint Francis receiving the stigmata”, from the father-in-law of Salort-Pons, which is currently hung in the medieval and Renaissance galleries of the DIA.
Washington, DC watchdog Whistleblower Aid has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service and the Michigan Attorney General, accusing the DIA board of not following its own procedures to approve the ready. They further allege that exposure to DIA could increase the resale value of the painting, thereby benefiting the director’s family.
The other touches on alleged staff dissatisfaction, with a group of former and current employees known as DIA Staff Action accusing the manager of creating a hostile work environment, particularly contemptuous of women and people of color. .
The Detroit News recently discussed these issues with Salort-Pons. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with a straightforward question: given the twin crises you face, can you survive as a director of DIA?
Salvador Salort-Pons: “I serve at the pleasure of the board. And their support has been important to me over the past two months.”
Your fellow museum director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, was fired by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, after accusations that somewhat resemble those leveled against you – that she created a toxic work environment and was unresponsive to the race. Does his dismissal change the calculation of your chances?
“This is something I don’t care to speculate on. When you compare MOCAD to DIA, DIA has a unique business model due to our mileage assistance, which makes comparisons difficult. “
Has the museum contacted DIA Staff Action after its toxic work environment accusations?
“We don’t know who the members of DIA Staff Action are. However, we are open to talking to any staff member and are interested in having a dialogue. I have an open door policy.
“However, since the start of the pandemic, the museum’s priority has been to protect staff. We have avoided layoffs and time off. And by redeploying those staff (whose regular duties disappeared during the pandemic, like those who take care of group bookings), we can keep everyone on the payroll. “
Some have said that a disproportionate percentage of women with decades of experience have left the museum in the past five years. Is this a fair assessment? And do you have any idea why?
“The DIA staff turnover rate is lower than the national average. The national rate is over 12% per year and ours is 9%. We have been collecting this information since we appointed our new HR manager in 2018.
“All of our colleagues are talented. I want the museum to have the resources and the positions to allow all staff to grow internally. But some of our team have career ambitions that can only be fulfilled in an institution other than DIA. the museum is not necessarily a place where people end their careers, but move forward. We are proud that their experiences at the DIA allow them to progress to more prestigious organizations.
You are under attack for the action of DIA staff as well as for the loan of your stepfather’s El Greco painting, both of which have been reported nationally. How do you deal with all of this emotionally?
“You know, criticism is part of a director’s job. And I stay focused on the work that we have to do, and that includes our work on inclusion and diversity. I focus on our exhibition program and I am very focused on ensuring that we provide a safe and healthy experience for our visitors and staff. ”
Crowell & Moring, the Washington, DC law firm commissioned by the board to review the ethics of the El Greco loan, has started its work? If so, how long will the investigation take?
“Yes, they started. But I’m not involved in it, so I don’t know how long it might take. “
Considering the trouble this causes, would you have liked El Greco to stay with your stepfather in Dallas?
“I think El Greco looks great in the galleries, and it’s a great thing the museum has to see. We are the only museum in Michigan to feature an El Greco, and it offers opportunities to education and improves the visitor experience.
“I hope this painting will be donated to the DIA.”
Can this crisis be turned into what President Obama has called a “teachable moment”? Is it possible to reform museum practices in a constructive way?
“We always welcome opportunities to learn how to do better. For me it is very important to learn what matters to our community and our staff. So I want to listen. I want to learn. And I want to work with the community and the staff.
“I think this moment for us is a reminder of the importance of the work that was already underway at the museum around workplace culture, diversity, inclusion, access and equity, which was moving forward. fine until we have to stop it due to the pandemic. “