Arts and Culture

Allegations of toxic work environment shake Minneapolis Institute of Art

People hold picket signs
Community members protest the treatment of Mia staff across the street from the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Turmoil inside the Minneapolis Institute of Art over exhibitions, equity and the institution’s future is boiling over into public view following the recent firing of a top curator.

Robert Cozzolino’s dismissal in January set off a wave of anger at the leadership of the world-renowned art museum, known as Mia.

A letter signed by a who’s-who of local and national art professionals and artists — including acclaimed filmmaker David Lynch — vocalized their support for Cozzolino and stated it had become “common knowledge across much of the Minnesota arts community that many Mia employees have felt undermined, unsafe, undervalued and uncared for.”

Cozzolino and one of the unions representing Mia employees say his firing is in response to criticizing leadership, particularly Katherine Crawford Luber, who took over as Mia’s director and president in Jan. 2020.

Cozzolino, as well as 10 former employees and one current employee that MPR News spoke to, say leadership has been unsupportive of equity efforts, which have led to the exit of at least three dozen personnel.

“My termination — it’s just really one in a long line of instances at Mia over the last few years” Cozzolino said. He said he’s seen dozens of coworkers leave under unclear circumstances. “They were valued staff members and community members who were doing a great deal for the museum’s reputation and to foster equity on staff and in the community.”

Mia officials say Cozzolino was fired for cause and that the union is trying to create the appearance of an internal crisis that doesn’t exist.

“Our journey towards a more diverse, more equitable, more inclusive place has nothing to do with [Cozzolino’s] termination,” Luber said. “Our goals are systemic change and durable change. Activism and allyship have important roles to play in this process, often indicating the people who are motivated to do the work. But the work itself has to be integrated into the institution at a systemic level, so that it does not rely solely on activists and allies to move forward.”

Woman poses and smiles
Minneapolis Institute of Art director Katie Luber.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Current and former employees, as well as local and national artists who’ve long supported Mia, though, say there’s been a drumbeat of widespread dissent for several years on issues from exhibition choices to the treatment of those doing equity and racial justice work at the museum.

“There was a whole string of people who have suddenly and mysteriously resigned without warning,” said former employee Angela Olson. Olson worked for Mia for five years. She left the museum in February 2022. 

“If you look at the group of folks [who are gone], Bob Cozzolino included, it’s all folks who are pretty vocal, and gave a lot of thought and work to DEIA [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access] initiatives,” Olson said.

Minnesota artist Dyani White Hawk, a recipient of the 2023 McArthur "genius" grant, was one of the first of almost 500 art professionals to sign the community letter in support of Cozzolino and Mia staff.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn of the way his contributions to the museum and our community were dismissed,” White Hawk told MPR News. White Hawk said Mia fired Cozzolino in such a “disrespectful manner.”  

White Hawk said Cozzolino is deeply respected in the local arts community. 

“I have been so concerned with the state of Mia for years now as we in the arts community hear account after account of how challenging it has become to work there,” she said.

‘Pretty significant shift’

The community letter asked the board to immediately review the working environment under current leadership. Signees tell MPR News that the board and Mia leadership have not responded.

Cozzolino’s “wrongful termination follows other significant staff members who were asked to resign or have chosen to resign under Katie Luber’s leadership,” the letter states.

Cozzolino, several former employees and one current employee interviewed by MPR News trace the roots of Mia’s current internal turmoil to an exhibition called “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration,” which went on display in February 2020, a few weeks after Luber took over as Mia’s director. 

The former employees and one current employee who asked to remain anonymous say they did so because of potential consequences.

Anniessa Antar was an activation specialist at Mia from 2019 to when she left in 2021. She was also a Mia coordinator for MASS Action, a nationwide effort to help transform museums into more equitable and inclusive spaces.

“As a person of color in the space doing equity work, working to really break down silos and trying to involve as many people as possible, the work was met with constant blockades,” Antar said.

The entrance to an art museum
The main entrance to the Minneapolis Institute of Art is pictured on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

One example Antar pointed to is the community involvement for the “When Home Won’t Let You Stay” exhibition. Antar solicited feedback from local immigrant and refugee communities on some of the artworks on display. 

“There were some art pieces in the show that people felt were insensitive, were not representative or helpful depictions of immigration,” Antar said.

In addition to the traditional museum labels, called didactics, Antar said community members wrote alternative labels for the artworks to provide a more nuanced point of view.

One of the community labels was appended to the video installation “Incoming,” by acclaimed Irish photographer Richard Mosse. For the video, Mosse filmed refugees around the world using a military-grade camera that can pick up body heat from far distances. 

“It’s a deeply unsettling piece,” Antar said. “It was perpetuating surveillance culture, it was perpetuating things against migrants and especially Muslim migrants.” The film also shows an autopsy. 

The label from the community member read in part: “The idea of using technology that’s intended for surveillance in order to show the humanity of people is an interesting idea. But it seems to just be reproducing the military use and simply bringing that into an art museum. The subjects of his work have no agency. And he’s benefiting from that.”

MPR News reached out to Mosse through the Jack Shainman Gallery, which represents him. The gallery said in an email that he declined to comment.

Antar said that Luber and Matthew Welch, Mia’s deputy director, ordered the alternative labels be removed, telling staff they disagreed with the approach. According to Molly Lax, Mia’s media and public relations manager, leadership specifically objected to the card describing Mosse’s film as having a “racist impulse.” 

Lax said the reference to Mosse was “an unfounded and potentially defamatory accusation” and “an inappropriate one for the museum to appear to endorse in a short text panel that lacked a larger context or nuance. It was completely out of step with our curatorial approach.”

Lax said Mia kept up the audio commentary and transcript from the community member on the Mia website.

Cozzolino said that this “silencing of community voices” around the exhibition was a big turning point for employees.

People hold signs on a sidewalk
Community supports protest the treatment of Mia staff across the street from the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Antar said the decision to remove the label led to an open letter from about 50 staff members including Lax. Antar said the letter was presented on Feb. 13, 2020, to Luber, and then to Mia’s Board of Trustees. The letter outlined a long list of concerns about equity and working with the local community. The exhibition stayed up through Aug. 2020.

“Throughout this entire process, staff morale has been devastatingly low, and working conditions unbearable for many,” said the letter, which noted that the tension over the exhibition “has been very taxing both mentally and physically on staff, especially the staff of color that have been working on this project.”

Antar said leadership and the board did not respond to the letter. Several former employees say the letter demonstrates a pattern of alienation from the institution, as many who signed it are no longer at Mia.

They say leadership created a toxic work environment for those working on DEI issues, and demoted employees or did not consider them for promotions. By Antar’s count, only about 11 of the 50 people who signed the letter remain on staff.

Mia declined to confirm these numbers, but an examination of LinkedIn and social media profiles, as well as through reaching out to individuals, shows that at least 35 of the signatories are no longer at Mia, representing more than 200 years of total employment.

According to Cozzolino, there was no “real curiosity and interest in getting to understand the underlying reasons why staff would have felt that way.”

“Anti-racist work, learning together, really showing humility with working with community, sharing power — all of that seemed to be unwelcome,” Cozzolino said.

Other former employees felt the internal tensions that continued to roil the museum, too.

Jamie Van Nostrand had worked in development and fundraising at Mia since 2006 and was a senior advancement officer and head of the annual fund and advancement resources when she left in June 2021. 

Van Nostrand said that she loved the majority of her 15 years at the Mia, which included her participation in the museum’s equity employee resource group, which focused on equity issues at the museum and in the community, from microaggressions to racial equity work and hiring practices.

“I was feeling pretty good about the strides we were taking and all of that, and then just really saw a pretty significant shift when Katie Luber came on board,” Van Nostrand said. She said she saw coworkers forced out or needing to leave because Mia was unsupportive of the DEI and community work they were doing.

“I resigned, ultimately, in June of 2021. I didn’t really want to,” she said. “I always kind of saw Mia as a home, but I just really couldn’t tolerate the toxicity and watching my friends be hurt.”

A large art museum facade
The Minneapolis Institute of Art is pictured on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Lax said Mia leadership did not target anyone for their work on DEI issues.

“I cannot speak to people’s decision to leave Mia — you would have to ask them,” Lax added. “There were a small number of people whose employment was terminated for cause.” 

The accusation is “in a word, ridiculous, as our staff diversity data demonstrates,” Lax said. “Moreover, an employer ‘targeting’ employees for their beliefs would be illegal.” 

Director Luber seconded this.

“I would like to be really clear with you today that Bob Cozzolino was not fired because of his activity as an ally, [but] despite it,” Luber said. “He was fired for cause, terminated for cause, and I can’t say anything else about that, obviously.”

Luber told MPR News that she has brought a different management style to Mia, one that she said focuses on the museum’s mission statement and strategic goals.

“Mia is an art museum, and I think sometimes with very activist voices, they forget that it’s an art museum, and they want it to be something else. They want it to fulfill a purpose that isn’t appropriate for an art museum,” Luber said. “Since I arrived here, what I have urged all staff to do is to be aligned with our mission. We’re free. We welcome everyone always, which is an incredibly powerful statement of diversity from the beginning.” 

Luber said that she has been dedicated to navigating the “incredibly difficult” time since the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic, citing that the amount of visitors dropped by the hundreds of thousands in 2020.

Luber listed several ways she and the museum have responded to staff concerns about DEI efforts. One is that she requested the board create an endowed position for its inaugural chief diversity and inclusion officer, now filled by Virajita Singh.

“Always keeping this part of diversity, equity, inclusion, central to the work that I do, that I think I live every day, and my values, and the team I’ve assembled. We’re really proud of that,” Luber said. “So I understand that some people might not like the direction that I’ve gone in, but I think it’s been more impactful.”

With or without cause?

Cozzolino joined Mia in 2016 and was responsible for several popular exhibits in the past few years, including the 2022 “Supernatural America” exhibition and the current “Reimagining Native/American Art,” which he co-curated with associate curator of Native American art Jill Ahlberg Yohe, who also signed the 2020 open letter. Cozzolino was the Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings at the time he was fired.

“I had no due process, and there was no progressive discipline or anything like that,” Cozzolino told MPR News.

Mia deputy director and chief curator Matthew Welch sent Cozzolino a letter on Jan. 9 outlining the reason for Cozzolino’s termination.

Molly Thul is a representative for Local 12 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, one of the unions that represents Mia workers. Thul said she has read the letter and that Mia leadership claimed Cozzolino was “no longer trustworthy” because they say he did not follow the museum policy for corresponding with a donor.

Cozzolino declined to comment on the contents of the letter. MPR News has seen the letter, but not its attached documents.

“The email was taken out of context, and Bob explained himself very well, what the intent of the email was,” Thul said. “He left for vacation over the holidays, came back and the next day he was fired.” 

Thul posited that Mia terminated Cozzolino in response to Cozzolino’s history of being vocal about union and equity issues at the museum.

His position was negotiated into a union position in early 2023. “They were firing him over something that happened prior to his union membership,” said Thul. “Bob was terminated over some information that they found in emails from two to three years ago,” she said.

A large crow puppet crosses a street
Puppet artist Mark Safford maneuvers his raven puppet, holding a sign supporting Mia employees in its beak, outside the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Thul said the union submitted a grievance to Mia on Jan. 17. The complaint states that Cozzolino was “unjustly terminated” and that Mia had violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement. It requests that Cozzolino be paid severance. The grievance also requests extensive files about employer notes, witness statements, donor relations policies and any disciplinary action taken against Cozzolino or any Mia curator.

“Bob’s employment was terminated for cause, was given an opportunity to address the concerns prior to termination and was provided with a detailed letter outlining the reasons for his termination,” said Lax.

“The fact that they chose to move to a public campaign against the museum suggests that they do not believe they will be successful in the grievance process and certainly undermines our confidence in their commitment to a rigorous review of the facts by a neutral third party in this case,” Lax continued. “Instead, this seems like a ruse by the union to distract from the for-cause termination of Bob Cozzolino.”

Members of the Mia board have not responded to MPR News requests for comment. Lax said that the board’s vice chairs, Piyumi Samaratunga and Tom Schreier, Jr., are “both aware of and supportive of Mia's management team’s handling of [MPR News] questions regarding these management issues.”

‘Devastating blow’

The Feb. 9 letter, signed by David Lynch and others, said the current leadership’s actions have damaged Mia’s relationship with artists and the arts community in Minnesota and across the world.

At last count, more than 500 people had signed it, including many local and nationally prominent artists, creatives, museum specialists and scholars. Besides Lynch, they include Ta-coumba T. Aiken, a 2022 Guggenheim fellow and Twin Cities artist; Mia senior curator Patrick Noon who retired in 2020; artist and MCAD professor emerita Hazel Belvo; and Eleanor Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Artist Lamar Peterson, an associate professor of drawing and painting at the University of Minnesota, signed the letter in support of Cozzolino.

“I really was upset and disappointed by it because of how important Bob’s been to the community as well as for me personally,” Peterson said. “He’s really outgoing and supporting of artists, particularly artists of color — I’m a person of color, artist of color — and he’s definitely been important and generous with his time supporting my career.”

Peterson said Cozzolino recently arranged for Mia to acquire one of his paintings currently on display in the “Reimagining Native/American Art” exhibition.

Cozzolino’s firing “is a devastating blow to the community and Mia,” Minneapolis gallery owner Todd Bockley told MPR News. “The range and quality of people that are outraged by this short-visioned and calloused action speaks to how widely respected his practice and his person are.”

Bockley has run his local gallery, Bockley Gallery, for 40 years, representing many major artists — including White Hawk, Leslie Barlow, Frank Big Bear, Jim Denomie, George Morrison and Pao Houa Her — who have had work shown or collected by Mia. Cozzolino, he said, is a curator who immersed himself in local communities and developed relationships with local artists. 

“He played a major role in reshaping the direction of the museum which has come to fruition in recent exhibitions and publications that have been attracting people into the museum,” Bockley added. “What kind of leadership would fire Bob Cozzolino? And are they the right people to entrust with the future of our museum?” 

What’s next?

A group of 25 former employees also sent a letter in mid-February to Mia’s board about the museum’s leadership team. They described Luber’s leadership style as “catastrophic.”

“Since she arrived in 2020, she has taken a lead role in the unwarranted dismissals, resignations, and involuntary separations of many staff of color, varied abilities, ages, along with those dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion efforts within the museum,” the letter stated. 

The signees say they have not heard a response from the board.

The OPEIU Local 12 union has also made buttons with a photo of Cozzolino and the phrase, “What About Bob?” The current employee who spoke to MPR News wears a button to work, they said. And Thul said she has seen several other current employees wearing them as well. 

A yellow pin on a black jacket
Barbara Snow sports a pin in support of terminated Mia employee Bob Cozzolino during a protest outside the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Thul said she expects to see many more people wearing them on Thursday evening at the museum. OPEIU is hosting a staff leafleting and community picketing event regarding Mia leadership.

“The termination of Bob Cozzolino on January 9th was the last straw for both union staff and the art community,” the union stated in a press release.

Cozzolino said he’s touched by the button campaign and the open letters. Cozzolino and all the current and former employees that MPR News spoke to say they love the museum and want it to succeed, but that is very unlikely if current leadership does not change.

The former and current employees say there is still immense talent at Mia.

“The reason why many of us are coming forward and talking about our experience now is because we believe in the museum’s role in the community as a place that should be open and free, and a place of creativity and risk and fun,” Cozzolino said. “It has the potential to be like that and to transform people’s lives.”

Lax disagreed that there is a problem: “The average tenure of our employees is 9.2 years, suggesting people like working here.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.