Only the first floor of Mexic-Arte Museum’s distressed building is legally permitted to host the public. Artists and a curator have paused plans for an exhibition, citing concerns for whether their art would be properly managed. And the board of trustees is in disarray over questions of leadership.
These are just some details of a continuing crisis surrounding Mexic-Arte evident in museum documents obtained by Sightlines.
In May, current and former museum employees took to social media with claims of unsafe working conditions, improper art storage, troubling employment practices as well as allegations against executive director Sylvia Orozco of employee harassment and discrimination.
Some members of the Mexic-Arte board acted quickly, coming up with a plan to immediately deal with the crisis — a plan that was approved by the board’s executive committee. However the documents make clear that those plans to address serious workplace/employment issues as well as art handling and safety were sidelined by Orozco and other board members.
Included in the documents is a report prepared by former board president Michael Torres along with executive committee board members George Elliman and Teresa Miller, who have also since resigned. Attached to the report is correspondence from crisis consultants in public relations, Red Fan Communications, and an employment law firm, Weisbart Springer & Hayes. Both firms have since terminated their representation of the museum.
The report called for a swift schedule to move the museum’s collection to a secure and climate-controlled space; immediate hiring of a third-party human resources professional to audit all personnel policies and procedures to make sure the museum is compliant with federal and state employment requirements; and make high priority changes to the bylaws so that the museum’s executive director position would no longer serve as a voting member of the board’s executive committee.
Attorney Julia A. Springer of Weisbart Springer & Hayes, who had been retained to advise on employment and compliance matters, wrote in a June 10 letter to the board that “the recommendations presented by Mr. Torres are important to ensure the proper treatment of the museum’s resources including its people and art.”
However Springer goes on in her letter to explain that she is terminating her representation of Mexic-Arte because “the resignation of Mr. Torres and the key members of the Executive Committee who were moving forward with a plan to address the serious issues facing the museum were apparently not supported by Ms. Orozco and other members of the Board.”
In an earlier letter dated June 1, Springer advised hiring a director of operations, a senior level position charged with overseeing all business, financial and administrative aspects. She also advised that the executive director position no longer serve on the museum’s board as it has been since the museum’s founding, and instead be reorganized as “executive staff of the museum and report directly to the board.”
“This structure is more in line with best practices for non-profit boards and avoids any concerns about conflict of interest that might arise,” Springer wrote.
Orozco responded saying that she is “the Founding Member of the Mexic-Arte Museum. For this reason, (I am) on the Board of Directors just as many other founders.”
(Orozco at first requested a conference call in order to answer questions from a reporter. But after days of delay, only agreed to answering questions in writing.)
Current Mexic-Arte board vice president Elizabeth A. Rogers declined to respond to questions, writing in an email to Sightlines that “Orozco is the point of contact for any press inquiries regarding the Museum and the volunteer Board Members.”
The report as well as its related documents was sent to the mayor and city council members in May.
Council member Vanessa Fuentes issued a statement saying “while I support Mexic-Arte’s mission, I find the allegations from former Mexic-Arte employees deeply disturbing.
“There should be zero tolerance for discriminatory working environments and unsafe working conditions. I hope that the Mexic-Arte Board and executive management are investigating these matters and that appropriate actions are taken to address the complaints that have been raised.”
A spokesperson in Fuentes’ office said that the council member would continue to monitor the museum’s situation and its development.
Included with the report was a May 25 email from independent curator Coka Treviño who had been organizing an exhibition of emerging Latinx artists. Treviño wrote that while she respected the museum’s past work “at this point I don’t feel confident that I can appease my artists that participating won’t hurt their careers or that their art will be properly managed.”
Orozco said that since the turmoil erupted in May, “Mexic-Arte museum has received overwhelming support from artists and the community… whose support of the museum has been strong, loyal and consistent.“
The report also revealed that the museum’s building at 419 Congress Ave. — a 1869 brick structure with no steel framing — lacks a certificate of occupancy from the City of Austin and instead holds an Occupancy Load Card which only grants permission for a maximum of 200 people to use the first floor.
The building has never met art preservation standards for temperature and humidity control, and its upper two floors failed a 1993 city inspection. Mexic-Arte has nevertheless used the top floors for storage of its permanent collection and for staff work stations.
“Programming takes place on the first floor,” Orozco wrote in her response. “When safety issues are noted, they are checked and addressed. We work within our budget to get things fixed and repaired. Staff is now working in the first floor office. Other staff are working from home.”
Orzoco said that the museum’s collection is being moved out of the building into temporary climate control space, but did not provide specifics nor a timeline.
Orozco also wrote that while the board agreed that there is a need for additional staffing, such as a human resources professional, “more time is needed to create the job description, decide the appropriate level of compensation and how the role figures into the overall organization chart.”
She wrote that the “museum already has several studies by experts in the field that have made these (new staffing) recommendations,” including adding a director of development, a capital campaign director, an assistant for the executive director and a business manager. Orozco did not provide any details about the studies nor name any experts.
Orozco indicated that the museum’s chief priority right now is building a new facility. Since 2018, Mexic-Arte has had $20.7 million in voter-approved city bond money for the rehabilitation of its building – a project the city greenlighted in May.
“Mexic-Arte Museum is currently and diligently working on the Museum Building Project, which is managed by the City of Austin,” Orozco wrote.
In June the museum announced that Exigo Architecture of El Paso and Cotera + Reed Architects of Austin will design the new building. Architect Juan Cotera’s wife, Martha Cotera, is a Mexic-Arte board member currently serving as interim board treasurer.