Curator Jova Lynne has been rehired by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit six months after leaving as the result of a conflict with former director Elysia Borowy-Reeder.
She’s assuming the job title of Susanne Feld Hillberry senior curator and is already at work planning a February exhibition of work by 42 Detroit artists.
Lynne’s return to MOCAD is a bright spot for the museum in a year otherwise dominated by conflict. In early July, a chorus of voices called for the resignation of Borowy-Reeder, citing racist microaggressions and a toxic work environment. Later that month, the museum fired Borowy-Reeder. Elyse Foltyn, chair of the MOCAD board, called it “a painful but first step of a course correct for MOCAD.”
“I believe that rehiring Jova is part of their course correction,” Foltyn said last week.
Lynne joined MOCAD in 2017 as a curatorial fellow before going on to work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, among others.
She began a full-time curation job at MOCAD in February, but was one of a number of staffers laid off in March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The laid-off employees were asked by Borowy-Reeder to continue working for MOCAD while collecting unemployment, Lynne said. When Lynne asked for some time off to deal with a family emergency, Borowy-Reeder asked for her resignation, she said.
Lynne then became vocal, along with the group MOCAD Resistance, in calls for Borowy-Reeder’s resignation.
“The complaints were so vast and so many, you know. I think my experience isn’t even the worst of them,” Lynne said. “It’s heartbreaking. To be honest, I’m glad the board is addressing this, but what happened was really terrible for a lot of people.”
After a MOCAD investigation resulted in Borowy-Reeder’s firing, Foltyn reached out to Lynne and asked whether she’d be willing to return. Foltyn said she didn’t hesitate to bring Lynne back despite her criticism regarding her time at MOCAD. “I think that she was not alone in being a critic of the management style,” Foltyn said.
Still, there was some hesitation on Lynne’s part. “I was surprised. It was unexpected,” Lynne said regarding Foltyn’s phone call. “(Returning to MOCAD) was a tough decision.
“I gave MOCAD a lot of my time and a lot of my energy and was really hurt by Elysia, specifically,” she said. “And so to go back to a place that hurt you is always challenging, but I really believe in the things that the board and the community together are (doing) to make MOCAD a better place.”
Lynne is optimistic about MOCAD’s future. “I think there’s a lot that’s happening in museums across the board, where staff has been bringing to light exploitative practices or oppressive practices, and I think MOCAD is a unique example of a board that really took that feedback … really seriously,” she said.
Foltyn is taking steps in addition to firing Borowy-Reeder and rehiring former employees to change the work culture at the museum. She says MOCAD has increased diversity on its executive committee and nominating committee and is working to engage more with the community.
Of course, institutional changes don’t happen overnight, Lynne noted. “I don’t think anything’s in the rear view,” she said of MOCAD’s recent problems. “I think things are being dealt with very carefully with the needs of the community coming first.”
In many ways, the needs of the community are at the center of Lynne’s vision for the museum’s future. Her goal is to help MOCAD become a place with an “emphasis on being responsive, being accessible (and) being a place where we really look at the arts as a way to sort of unpack larger social issues.”
Foltyn said of Lynne’s curatorial vision: “It could not have been more exciting, more thoughtful, more passionate, more committed to embracing MOCAD’s mission.”
As for replacing Borowy-Reeder, Foltyn said she’s now looking for an interim executive director who can “come in and sort of reset the table” before hiring a new full-time director. “I think it’s important that … we have a healthier work environment before looking for an outsider to join us,” she said.
Isabelle Bousquette is a freelance writer specializing in arts and entertainment.
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