It is Past Time to Hold Americans for the Arts Accountable for Its Actions
We, on behalf of a group of former and current staff members, stand with the dedicated volunteer arts and cultural leaders, affiliated with Americans for the Arts, who are trying to hold the organization accountable. In this post on November 11, 2020, Quanice Floyd outlined the lack of transparency and accountability from senior leaders of the national service organization, which detailed their power hoarding and protection of the status quo while hypocritically espousing progressive ideals of change, inclusiveness, and righteous goodwill.
We stand with these leaders and wish to amplify their calls to support BIPOC organizations in the arts and cultural field while encouraging the Americans for the Arts Board and members to address its long-standing failure of leadership through swift and decisive action and remove those causing direct harm to their colleagues in the field and to this organization.
Ms. Floyd states that the “issues that we see playing out in national media are the same issues we deal with in the field every single day.” While the organization was publishing articles about the #MeToo movement, it was simultaneously protecting perpetrators of sexual harassment within the organization and on its advisory groups. While posting about Black Lives Matter on Instagram, the organization silenced criticism from its own employees asking for changes related to racial equity in the organization’s policies or programming.
Not only has the organization failed to address the advancement of people of color in the arts community, but leadership has created and condoned a hostile work environment that is rife with bullying, intimidation, retaliation, and harassment for those employees who speak up about organizational wrongdoings or challenge leadership on issues of racial justice, pay equity, gender parity, or sexual misconduct.
We have an obligation to share our stories — ones that are hardly unique over the past decade or more — of our time under the failed leadership of Americans for the Arts’ CEO Robert L. (Bob) Lynch, COO Mara Walker, SVP Marc Ian Tobias, Board Chair Julie Muraco, and others within this nationally recognized, powerful, and well-financed organization.
On March 25, 2019, Jeff M. Poulin was fired two business days after Americans for the Arts’ President and CEO, Bob Lynch, and his team were notified of a complaint Jeff had filed with the DC Office of Human Rights (DCOHR) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for the years-long sexual harassment he had experienced by a senior member of staff. Here is his story:
My first several years working for the organization were positive: I was successful and I advanced quickly within the organization. When I began to be sexually harassed by a co-worker and reported it, I faced a coordinated retaliation effort by the perpetrator and senior leadership within the organization, thus halting my work and negatively impacting my career trajectory.
Following this event in 2016, I filed complaints with the organization’s human resources department, resulting in over 10 formal notifications to organizational leadership. After two years of false promises, faithless mediation, and gag orders, I began to share my story with close colleagues. In doing so, I learned of numerous others who experienced — and reported — sexual harassment, workplace bullying and intimidation, violations of organizational policies, and resulting retaliation. In none of these cases was there an appropriate remedial response by the organization.
In 2018, I elevated the claims (including my own and others who empowered me to share theirs) in a formal meeting with CEO Bob Lynch. I presented the claims together to illustrate a pattern of deception on the part of COO Mara Walker and SVP Marc Ian Tobias to protect each other and their colleagues who were responsible for the harm against junior staffers. Instead of taking corrective or remedial action, the CEO disciplined me for “being disruptive” and the senior leadership collective began their retaliation campaign to damage my reputation with internal and external stakeholders.
In accordance with organizational policy, I next elevated the claims to several members of the board of directors. Once they brought it to the attention of the CEO and Board Chair, those board members were quickly removed from their posts. As I was out of options within the organizational, I took legal action to protect myself, filing the appropriate paperwork with the DCOHR and EEOC. Upon the organization’s receipt of my complaint, I was fired.
Jeff was undeniably terminated as a result of his three-year-long effort, following organizational policies, to hold the organization accountable for the actions of senior leaders who harmed a group of junior employees through sexual harassment, workplace bullying and intimidation, and retaliation.
Sadly, this story is not unlike many others. He was not the only person who experienced sexual harassment, not the only person who was retaliated against, and not the only person who had their rights violated, protections ignored, and reputation irreparably damaged.
In her letter, Ms. Floyd underscored the power hoarding and lack of transparency on the part of the organization regarding the support of BIPOC leaders in the arts field. The experiences and stories of former staff demonstrate just how far back these issues of failed leadership from the top leaders of Americans for the Arts stretch.
Since 2016, and perhaps for years before, 10+ staff members of the organization reported and documented internal issues regarding sexual harassment, workplace intimidation, retaliation, and a pervasively hostile work environment. The documentation took the form of formal reports to Human Resources, written emails to the C-suite, letters to supervisors, exit interviews, and more. In all cases, the employee was reporting a violation of law or organizational policy and was overwhelmingly attacked due to their position, status, age, gender, or race.
In some cases, employees were sexually harassed (“You were only hired because you are good-looking.”). In other cases, they were retaliated against for reporting a senior staff members’ violation of law or organizational policy regarding gender or racial disparities. One individual was interrogated and denied promotion immediately following their report of witnessing intimidation and bullying. In another case, an hourly junior staff member was required to work overtime and denied pay for that overtime. When reporting these incidents, staff members were regularly given written warnings for being “disruptive” thus leading to their untimely departures.
Another tactic often used is the coercion of employees into legal paperwork, like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that led to their untimely departures. In one such case an employee was threatened (“They could fucking fire you at any moment unless you go on FMLA”) and then faced predatory action, hostile treatment, and discipline for using the law for their sick leave.
We have maintained years-long lists of details pertaining to every case, some of which are making their way through the court system. We have recently shared an exhaustive list of details with the organization’s Board of Directors, whom until now were unaware of these situations, kept in the dark by the organization’s leadership.
In all such cases, there is a demonstrable pattern of behavior: not one is a singular incident. The pattern demonstrates a coordinated effort of self-protection and manipulation on the part of Bob Lynch, Mara Walker, and Marc Ian Tobias. Regardless of the circumstance, the senior leaders orchestrated retaliation campaigns to discredit, undermine, and scaffold the departure of employees who raised issues of unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. This took form either through termination, recommendation to resign, revoked promotion, isolation, or a combination thereof. They effectively silenced any dissent or opposition to their power-hoarding and lack of transparency, particularly related to issues of racial equity, pay equity, gender parity, or sexual misconduct.
What has resulted in the intervening time, from 2019–2020, is that those responsible for these situations — the sexual harassers, bullies, and orchestrators of intimidation — have been rewarded: the CEO’s salary has increased, others have received promotions, etc. Through an organizational restructuring, they have consolidated power such that those with cases against them oversee the very investigation (if any) of future cases. In some circumstances, those who were complicit in these actions (knowing about the situations but not taking action) have received numerous or unscheduled promotions.
In every circumstance of which we are aware, the employee made clear the circumstances by which their departure was occurring in an attempt to create a record and bring about change. As a group, we have retained copies of formal complaints, letters to supervisors, exit interviews, emails, and more in hopes of resolving the issues and preventing similar problems moving forward.
The Issue of Racial Equity
The topic of racial equity has been an underlying challenge at Americans for the Arts for years. During our tenures, we witnessed the tumultuous relations between senior leadership, staff of color, and their allies. One quote that sticks with us from a BIPOC staff member from the bottom floor within the office building: “It’s like a plantation down here. The higher up you go, the whiter it gets.”
The issue of racial equity played an important role in the many cases previously outlined, much of which will be denied by senior leadership of the organization. In many of the circumstances described above, the intersectional topic of race determined the dynamics of the situation. Americans for the Arts’ leaders will be quick to point to the 2016 Statement of Cultural Equity. Until recently, the entire senior leadership of the organization was white, meaning that in all of the situations outlined, the perpetrator in power — who was accused and then effectively silenced their junior — is white.
Those who advanced quickly and were rewarded are white. Those who were forced out the door for speaking up about these issues are BIPOC or allies.
The pervasiveness of racial inequality within the organization starts at the top. Any auditor could see from a simple review of employee advancement, organizational culture surveys, salaries, and even office placement, that the Americans for the Arts is fraught with discrimination on the basis of race and color. Change has not occurred because the senior leadership views it as a threat to their positional power, clout in the field, personal wealth, or ability to gate-keep and control the goings-on within the American arts and culture sector. This is why the CEO’s salary continues to increase; this is why a protected sexual harasser leads the organization’s DEI work; and this is why the people who lead intimidation and retaliation efforts direct human resources — the consolidation of power is to maintain the status quo and limit transparency to the board of directors, membership, and the public.
Recently, a number of volunteer leaders within the organization have tried to hold the organization to account, including several advisory councils and long-standing members. They have been met with resistance from organizational leaders, which prompted Ms. Floyd’s November 11th article. Since its publication, prominent organizations have withdrawn their support of Americans for the Arts.
In response, the organization quickly and performatively outlined their ‘accomplishments’ through internal and external work related to racial equity, but the truth is this: When working with BIPOC external racial evaluators, coaches, and consultants who provide critical insights and recommendations, those in power fire them once they don’t like what they have to say. In a recent session on the topic of racial equality and justice, CEO Bob Lynch said that he believed it was a waste of time.
However, when it comes to receiving grants for race- and equity-focused work, Americans for the Arts appears to take the money, pay their executives, and provide little to no programming whatsoever to their membership. We frequently observed such grant monies being reallocated to pay for other programs and staff time of executives and never being tracked for purposes of reporting to the funder.
Invariably, when staff spoke up about these issues, they were fired or pushed out.
Covering it All Up
As demonstrated throughout this letter, the named leaders have constructed an intricate series of systems to consolidate power and limit transparency. Specifically speaking, the senior leaders of Americans for the Arts have withheld information from those charged with their oversight (i.e. the Board of Directors and advisory councils of the membership) as well as limited transparency to the public.
They actively try to control the narrative about their work and regularly outright lie. Public facing documents, like reports of their “successes” on racial equity work, have been produced without any critical insights or feedback reflecting the actual goings-on within the organization. Throughout this year, when members of the organization asked for updates, Mara Walker informed them that the organization did not have the capacity to produce a report. Once those same members publicly revealed these requests and the organization’s response in the media, the organization produced a report in record time. Immediately following this incident, Americans for the Arts mailed a solicitation seeking individual donations claiming that “Equity in the arts can’t wait.” In our opinion, this is an attempt to change the narrative about the harsh realities of their work and behavior.
Similarly, if one were to try to examine the outcomes, finances, and programs of the organization, it may prove hard because the organization has not produced an annual report since 2017 — the same year that the issues of racial inequity, sexual harassment, and retaliation began to be revealed.
Righting the Wrongs
We believe what we have outlined above should be cause for grave concern among the organization’s members, Board of Directors, funders, and other supporters. It must be rectified — immediately.
On behalf of a group of former and current employees, we call for four things:
- The membership of Americans for the Arts must hold the Board of Directors accountable to take swift and decisive action to correct the long-standing issues of failed leadership, power-hoarding, lack of transparency, and unjust organizational practices;
- The Board of Directors must swiftly and decisively remove senior leadership, including the CEO, COO, SVP, Board Chair, and others accused of sexual harassment, retaliation, financial malfeasance or other illegal acts;
- The interim or new leadership must retain an external investigator to explore the numerous claims of wrongdoings with current and former employees and to settle any pending lawsuits or EEOC complaints; and
- An external auditor must conduct an examination of the organization’s policies and procedures to ensure that these situations are not replicated in the future.
Further, we call on the arts and culture sector to stand with the other 100+ organizations that support the development of the cultural sector and advocate for federal, state, and local government investment in the arts, especially elevating the transformative work of Arts Administrators of Color, Women of Color in the Arts, International Association of Blacks in Dance, First Peoples Fund, Asian American Arts Alliance, and National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures.
Through its many faults, we do believe in the potential of Americans for the Arts’ mission, vision, and members. We believe the organization has potential to build on its long history of advancing arts and culture in the United States if it works in partnership with its members, statewide, community-based, and BIPOC-led organizations. However, Ms. Floyd was right in her letter: Americans for the Arts has extensive internal work to do in order to deserve a place at the table of national discussion in the field of arts and culture. It has tarnished its reputation and must work hard to earn a seat among those effectively supporting artists in America.
Until such a time the organization does this work, it should not receive any further support.
Jeff M. Poulin, former Arts Education Program Manager, 2013–2019
Kate McClanahan, former Director of Federal Affairs, 2013–2018
Bridget Woodbury, former Membership Marketing Senior Coordinator, 2015–2018
Other former and current staff who wish to remain anonymous.