Several board members of Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum — including board president Michael Torres and treasurer George Elliman — have resigned citing concerns about the museum’s management and leadership.
The resignations follow claims made last month by museum workers and former workers of unsafe working conditions, improper art storage, troubling employment practices as well as allegations against executive director Sylvia Orozco of employee harassment and discrimination.
Torres, CEO of Greenworld Materials, has served on the board nearly 10 years, and held the position as president for the last five years. Elliman, publisher of Tribeza magazine, is a past board president and has been on the board for over 10 years.
“I have no confidence that the issues posing liabilities and fiduciary consequences to the museum and the board, will be taken seriously, and resolved,” wrote Torres in his June 9 resignation letter.
In a phone call, Torres said that board members Teresa Miller, Michael Taylor and Neil Diaz had also resigned.
Torres also confirmed that Red Fan Communications, which had been hired last month for crisis communications, and the legal firm of Weisbart, Springer & Hayes, hired to review the museum’s employment practices, have also terminated their contracts.
Torres said he sent the consultants’ report and recommendations to the mayor, the city manager and all city council members. The museum has several contracts and fiduciary agreements with the city, including $20 million in voter-approved bond funding for a new building.
Torres said that after the allegations and claims were made, he and other board members moved to hire outside legal, communications and employment consultants who drafted a report with a list of recommendations. However when it came to present the findings to the entire board, he met with “stiff resistance from the Executive Director and one of the executive board members,” his June 9 resignation said.
“In addition, a board member recently announced that it ‘might be a good idea to dial down the crisis rhetoric,’ essentially calling for an action to sweep things under the rug,” his letter continued. “And during the June 6th board meeting, many of us were told that we could not ask questions or make a statement at the board meeting. Nor would we be allowed to call a board meeting to address the contents of our investigational findings. Many of us felt some of the same discrimination and aggressions that the employees claimed to have experienced.”
Orozco is a voting member of the board’s executive committee. In Texas, it is legal for a non-profit organization’s executive director or CEO to be a voting board member. However it is considered common best practices that executives be non-voting board members to avoid conflicts concerning accountability.
Elliman confirmed that years ago a change was made to the organization’s bylaws to only allow the executive director, or a majority of the executive committee, to call a meeting and set the agenda. “Board members serve at Sylvia’s invitation,” he said in a phone call.
Multiple attempts to reach Orozco were unsuccessful.
Elliman said the recent crisis brought to light problematic issues which had not previously been presented to board by the executive director.
“The executive committee was aware that the building was not in great shape and needed to be replaced,” he said, adding that the current building had been through a number of different inspections over the years, and is not a museum-quality building.
However he said the revelations of how some employees were treated were very troubling for him.
In his June 10 resignation letter he wrote: “(Most concerning was) the lack of formal HR procedures and policies for hiring and firing, and a recent quote from Sylvia, ‘I care about the institution more than I will ever care about the employees.’ This quote is disheartening to me because people are what make an institution, they make up the culture and the energy that enables it to grow and prosper.”
Torres said he hopes the city steps in to help the museum.
“I want to see the museum and Sylvia be successful,” Torres said by phone. “I still have a love for Mexic-Arte and a love for the institution — and Sylvia, and the staff, and the artists. I believe the museum will get past this and that it has a lot great things in front of it. This is an opportunity for transformation.”