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Firing at Mia sparks union accusations of toxic work environment

Star Tribune - 2/22/2024

Picketers huddled Thursday on 3rd Avenue S. across the street from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, waving signs that read, "Mia for the People," "Where Are Your Native Employees?" and other messages. Protesters wore pins that read "What About Bob?"

The picketing was part of general anger about working conditions at Mia and the firing of Mia employee Bob Cozzolino, the former Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings who is known for championing underrepresented artists.

His firing was the first of a high-profile curator, but he and the OPEIU Local 12 are saying it's part of a bigger trend.

"There were some things that I experienced that lots of other people at Mia experienced, including being marginalized for speaking up for equity issues," Cozzolino said.

He said that this work, which started in 2016, became minimized under Mia's director, Katherine Luber.

"People who were doing equity work were considered activists or radical, instead of how the culture of the field should be," he said.

Luber, who came to Minneapolis after eight years at the San Antonio Museum of Art, is the museum's 12th director and second woman in the post. She described a very different picture, particularly in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), as well as changes made since she arrived at the museum, including hiring Virajita Singh as its first chief diversity and inclusion officer.

"I think it's unfortunate that, for whatever reason, that termination has been conflated with allegations about the lack of DEI work here at Mia or that it stopped in 2020," Luber said. "And that is, like, so not true."

Cozzolino's firing has caused outrage throughout the art community. More than 450 art community members have signed an open letter of support. Former Mia employees have been anonymously speaking out on the Instagram account @reimagine_mia.

"It's performative DEAI theater, but behind the scenes Mia is making it a toxic environment for people of color," OPEIU representative Cesar Montufar said.

On Wednesday, Mia released a three-page statement entitled, "A Track Record of Success: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Belonging at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia)," which includes statistics about Mia having a diverse staff of more than 250 people, with 27.9% identifying as people of color; collecting artworks by people of color and Native American artists; and a new of Latin American art curator position.

In Cozzolino's termination letter from Mia, Deputy Director and Chief Curator Matthew Welch said Cozzolino was fired because he "repeatedly failed to follow Mia's established protocol for coordinating its communications with donors — in this case for a key donor. … Mia also requires that curators not pursue acquisitions with [a donor's] support until after the Mia internal group vetted them."

Cozzolino said he saw it differently.

"What Mia is saying is cause, is just the normal way curators interact with collectors, and how we cultivate beneficial and productive relationships with collectors," he said.

The union said his firing was not because of "mishandling communications with a donor," but rather it was symptomatic of changes at Mia under Luber.

Anniessa Antar worked as an activation specialist at Mia from 2019 to 2021 and in a seasonal role as a Museum as Site for Social Action coordinator from 2017 to 2019.

"I stopped working there in 2021 because it was no longer possible for me to do the level and depth of work that I was aiming to do, [inviting] new audiences into the museum," Antar said. "I made it a point to collaborate with artists and community partners on inclusive programming to welcome more visitors of color, visitors from the Phillips and Whittier neighborhoods."

Luber denied accusations of a toxic work environment.

"I would say that it's an accusation that's not founded in reality, and it doesn't bother me," she said, pointing to regular annual turnover. "Given that we're an organization that has so many hourly employees, we have a lot of churn."

For the recently departed Native American Exhibition Outreach assistant Gidinatiy Hartman, who had a six-month position but quit after 10 weeks, leaving felt right.

"I feel like there's a lot of tension in the museum because no one can say their true opinions and feelings," she said. "It doesn't create a welcoming environment."

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