Curator’s Termination Sparks Outrage at Minneapolis Institute of Art


Curator’s Termination Sparks Outrage at Minneapolis Institute of Art

MINNEAPOLIS — Curator Robert Cozzolino’s termination from the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) has become a flashpoint for union organizers and staff who have left the museum, citing what they say is a toxic work environment and a lack of commitment by Director Katherine Luber to “the existing deeply engaged community of practice around inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA) work,” according to an open letter written by former staff members.

It’s one of two recent letters supporting Cozzolino, the other signed by figures in Minnesota’s art community and beyond including artist and filmmaker David Lynch, whose work Cozzolino has curated and written about. Concerns over his termination were also voiced during a picket at the museum last week. 

Originally from Chicago, Cozzolino joined Mia in 2016 as the Patrick and Aimee Butler curator of paintings and was dismissed on January 9. According to Minnesota Public Radio, which first reported the story, the museum’s termination letter cited donor communications and claimed that Cozzolino had pursued acquisitions without Mia vetting.

But union organizers and a group of former Mia staff involved in equity work at the museum say Cozzolino was terminated wrongfully and that the move is indicative of systemic issues, including a top-down mentality under Luber and a move away from progress on diversity and inclusion.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Cozzolino said that in late 2021, he was told that he could not speak to one specific donor without approval.

“There isn’t a written policy about how to work with this particular person, or donors in general, except for just ethics — not sharing secrets, not giving out sensitive information, which I don’t do,” Cozzolino said, adding that the donor in question noticed the change. “They became annoyed with the process and expressed their annoyance — not with me.”

The former curator said public outcry over his firing has been heartening, but that issues with Mia go beyond him. “I’m just one of many people who were pushed out or were terminated,” he said. “It just felt like people who had high reputations in the field nationally could disappear — people started resigning without explanation in a day.” 

According to the open letter by former staff, “more than one hundred employees have departed since [Luber’s] arrival in January 2020.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Molly Lax, Mia’s media and public relations manager, said the total number of employees declined from 249 before 2020 to 185 at the height of the pandemic “in part due to layoffs and buyouts, as was the case at many museums across the country.” “The museum has since restaffed to 250 employees, and annual turnover is between 15–20%, which is about average for museums and well below turnover in many other fields,” she said.

According to Mia, Cozzolino was given an opportunity to address concerns prior to termination. After his departure, the union filed a grievance and began a public campaign — an effort that Lax said “seems like a ruse by the union to distract from the for-cause termination of Bob Cozzolino.” 

Among Cozzolino’s supporters at the museum is collector JoAnn Gonzalez Hickey, who recently announced a gift of 100 drawings to Mia. In a statement to Hyperallergic, she described Cozzolino as a curator who “lingers beneath the surface of the art objects he brings to public view.”

 “He has long been the champion of the unique, unsung, and overlooked artists,” Hickey said.

Of note, Cozzolino curated Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art and organized Artists Reflect: Contemporary Views on the American War, a companion exhibition to a traveling show about the Vietnam War organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He also worked with Jill Ahlberg Yohe in collaboration with Native artists and communities for Reimagining Native/American Art

Cozzolino decided he wanted to be part of the Mia union in June 2021, during a period when staff members were leaving without notice or explanation. “We were all terrified,” he said.

Luber joined Mia in January of 2020 after previously directing the San Antonio Museum of Art, where she made headlines for approving staffing cuts. Angela Olson, who worked in Mia’s education department from 2017 to 2022, told Hyperallergic that the management shift was significant. “The leadership team became very insular, very difficult to get through to,” Olson said. “It was like, oh, is this a Fortune 500 company all of a sudden?” 

Alice Anderson, a manager of audience research and impact at Mia from 2017 to 2023, noted that under Luber, very few decisions were made below the leadership level. “Middle managers or below felt very ill equipped to make decisions, because they all had to be made from a top level,” she said.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Cesar Montufar, an organizer for Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 12, which represents Mia workers, also echoed workers’ issues.

“The intent here is to get the board of directors to remove Katie Luber,” Montufar said. “There is no one on this coalition who sees a future for this museum functioning the way it should, with her at the helm.”

The missive penned by former Mia staff alleges “a disturbing pattern of behavior” from Luber in the last four years, including “racist remarks, unfounded termination, performative nods to equity, and gaslighting.” Lax responded to the claims by calling them “broad-brush accusations” that “lack any specifics and are completely baseless.” 

“Until Bob’s termination, there have been no union grievances, unfair labor practice charges, or litigation filed about any of these things — because they are not true,” Lax said. She listed the museum’s posted list of actions and activities on DEI issues as a demonstration of Mia’s work. 

Concerns around Luber’s management date back to 2020, when critical community responses installed as part of the traveling exhibition When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration were removed by leadership. Cozzolino was one of two curators who signed an open letter at the time addressing concerns around Mia’s actions.

“The target was set on him because he signed that letter,” said Anniessa Antar, a former Mia staffer and coordinator of the Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action) initiative, a national workgroup Mia formed under Luber’s predecessor, Kaywin Feldman. The program was aimed at making museums racially just. According to Antar, MASS Action had identified a move toward more hierarchical models at museums, mirroring shifts in corporate and nonprofit worlds.

“There’s a pendulum swing back to top-down, stringent lockdown on giving people autonomy to be able to do their jobs well,” Antar said. 

So far, it does not seem that the museum’s board will take action in response to recent organizing. “I have full confidence in Katie Luber’s leadership of Mia,” wrote Mia Board Chair John Lindahl in a statement to Hyperallergic. “She has helped the museum navigate and vigorously bounce back from the impact of the pandemic — through hiring, exhibition and program development, and fundraising — and with a strong and diverse team in place the museum is fulfilling its mission while also strategically incorporating DEI initiatives across the institution.”

But public pressure is mounting, with the list of names on the open public letter indicating a who’s who of important figures in the art world. As curator, donor, and artist Harriet Bart wrote in an email to Hyperallergic: “It is clear to me that all is not well.” 


Leave a Comment