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Salort-Pons’ Response: Detroit Institute’s Director Tussles with Anonymous Detractors

Showing a courage and candor that’s been in short supply among museum officials who are navigating the choppy waters of racial tensions, political unrest and economic difficulty, Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, has publicly engaged with the issues raised in a petition calling for his removal.

Salvador Salort-Pons
Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts

In their petition, DIA Staff Action—a self-described group of unnamed current and former DIA staffers—decried “years of a hostile work environment.” They have chosen to remain anonymous, they wrote, “due to the high risk of retaliation, and to protect this project.”

The purpose of Salort-Pons’ August Director’s Letter (titled, “A Welcome Conversation”) seems not only to engage in dialogue with his critics, but also to preempt a possible NY Times story, for which he was interviewed, that be believes will be “based on the premise, heard from former employees, that we are no longer taking a visitor-centered approach to our work and that this has caused poor outreach to Black communities in Detroit.”

I assume Salort-Pons’ August missive refers to a possible Times follow-up to the July 15 piece by Graham BowleyComplaint Faults Museum Director for Hanging His In-Law’s El Greco—which focuses on questions raised by the museum’s display of a painting loaned by Alan May, the director’s father-in-law, who has gifted paintings to other major museums, as reported by the Times.

Graham Bowley

Art museum officials (with the notable exception of Alex Nyerges of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) have generally shied away from issuing detailed responses to the recent proliferation of attacks on their institutions’ records for sound management, equitable workplace culture and diversity of staff, programs and collections.

Without directly addressing specific complaints, several embattled museum leaders have pledged to “do better,” sometimes substantiating those promises with detailed action plans.

In his Director’s Letter, Salort-Pons enumerated the many ways in which the DIA already fosters community engagement. But he also acknowledged that he has “much more to do” in improving workplace culture, “and we need to do it with more urgency, while listening to all points of view.”

Bowley’s piece described “broader complaints” about “a less-than-collaborative management style, sidelining of senior staff members, and frustration that Mr. Salort-Pons is undermining the institute’s emphasis on community outreach and education.”

A more comprehensive rundown of staff complaints is provided in this Detroit Free Press piece by Isabelle Bousquette.

My own contact with Salort-Pons was limited to the two-part phone interview (here and here) that he granted me in 2015, when he was named to succeed the irreplaceable Graham Beal (not to be confused with the investigative Graham Bowley) as the DIA’s director.

Graham Beal

He then expressed his desire to forge strong ties with the surrounding communities and to “appeal to a broader, diverse audience.”

But because Salort-Pons was an inside candidate (DIA’s executive director of collection strategies and information; director of European Art and curator of European Paintings), I felt frustrated by his vague answers regarding his ideas for the museum. I thought he would have been ready to hit the ground running.

As I then wrote: “I had hoped that someone possessing an insider’s familiarity with the DIA’s situation and its aspirations might have provided more details about where things might go from here.”

He now concedes that (in Bowley’s words) “his European background [Spanish-born] meant that initially he had had a limited understanding of the Black struggle in America but [he] was taking steps to improve diversity.”

It would seem that he may need to take further steps in that direction, if he is to remain at his current post. That said, the museum’s board has expressed “full confidence in Salvador Salort-Pons and the leadership team of the DIA.”

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