New Red Order postpone MOCAD exhibition following allegations of racism against museum's executive director from staff


  • Paula Court

New Red Order postponed its planned solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit indefinitely while the museum's board investigates allegations of racism against executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder.

On Friday, nearly 40 current and former MOCAD staffers went public with a list of grievances against Borowy-Reeder, alleging "racial microaggressions, violent verbal outbursts, retaliations, misrepresentation of community partnerships, and tokenization of marginalized artists." Borowy-Reeder was placed on administrative leave while the board investigates the allegations, ArtNews reports, and New Red Order told the board it must "respectfully insist" that its exhibition be postponed until the board addresses the staffers' demands.

The demands, signed "MOCAD Resistance," call for Borowy-Reeder to be replaced by a new executive director who is not white, a seat allocated on the board to be occupied by an elected museum employee to represent employee interests, and for more diversity on the board, among other items.

Members of MOCAD's board did not return a request from Metro Times for comment, nor did Borowy-Reeder.

New Red Order is a network of collaborators led by Indigenous artists, including Adam and Zack Khalil (who hail from Sault St. Marie) and Jackson Polys. New Red Order's MOCAD show, its first solo exhibition, was originally supposed to open last Thursday, when the museum officially reopened to the public after closing due to the coronavirus crisis in March. It was to be MOCAD's largest exhibition of the season.

New Red Order had also called on MOCAD to incorporate a "land acknowledgement," or a formal statement from the museum recognizing the Indigenous people who originally inhabited the land, into its practice as a precondition to its participation in the exhibition. In an email sent to the board and shared with Metro Times, New Red Order demands that the land acknowledgment is tied both to a commitment and a list of concrete actions that demonstrate that commitment.

The letter New Red Order sent to MOCAD's board is reprinted with permission below:

To the MOCAD Board of Directors,

We, the New Red Order, respectfully insist that the opening of our forthcoming exhibition, Crimes Against Reality, currently scheduled to open on July 9, 2020, be postponed until the MOCAD Board of Directors agrees, in writing, to meet all five of MOCAD former staff’s actionable items.

This decision is made in solidarity with current and former MOCAD staff, and informed by our own negative experiences with MOCAD’s Executive Director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder. From the beginning of our relationship with MOCAD our interactions with Borowy-Reeder have been characterized by carelessness, racial insensitivity, tokenization, and neglect. Unfortunately, through the course of undertaking our exhibition, we have become well acquainted with the erratic and hostile work environment perpetuated by her leadership. We hope our words and actions further amplify the concerns of current and former staff who have and will no doubt continue to speak out.

It has become evident that this institution can no longer function with Borowy-Reeder leading, but this is not only about one person. Since our exhibition will only open after Borowy-Reeder’s departure, we want to ensure that a prior commitment, promised by Borowy-Reeder, is still met by the Board. Upon our request, and as a precondition for our participation, Borowy-Reeder agreed, in writing, that MOCAD will adopt a land acknowledgment practice that includes “a commitment to working to dismantle the ongoing effects of settler-colonialism, and to serve Detroit’s Indigenous community” and that this commitment will be “accompanied by a list of concrete actions that demonstrate this commitment” which will be released “by the end of the year.” Before our exhibition can open we need to know, in writing, that the MOCAD Board of Directors still stands by this promise made by the institution's Executive Director.

We would have preferred not to have to make this decision: to withhold this exhibition until the Board agrees to meet these demands. We sincerely want to share our work here, with people in Detroit and beyond. We want to be in dialogue with those we have not yet met; but we cannot in good conscience tacitly support an institution whose leadership instills a culture of fear and reinforces racial hierarchies that our work aims to dismantle. Borowy-Reeder herself told us, “I've always taken the approach that actions speak louder than words.” We are hopeful that Borowy-Reeder and the Board will listen closely to the myriad of voices demanding change at MOCAD, and that both will act quickly to ensure this institution is capable of serving its people.

With respect and appreciation,

New Red Order

You can read more about New Red Order in last week's Metro Times cover story.

Updated 7:11 p.m., Wednesday, July 8 with additional statements from New Red Order.

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