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Minneapolis Institute of Art firing of top curator sparks industry-wide controversy


The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) fired top curator Robert Cozzolino on Jan. 9. This has prompted protests and a deep concern about the museum’s work environment under current leadership, particularly in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Cozzolino, named the Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings upon joining the museum in 2016, was known for his efforts to showcase the work of underrepresented artists. His 2022 exhibition titled “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art” partly sought to converge the United States’ genocidal formation with how artists of the past and today process themes of haunting and the paranormal. 


Cozzolino’s “engagement with artists [opened] canonical histories to inquiry, thereby creating inclusivity at an institutional level,” reads an open letter addressed to the MIA’s Board of Directors following the termination. The letter is now signed by over 560 art professionals. 


MIA employees of past and present report a distinct pattern. 


“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 [diversity, equity, inclusion, and access] initiatives,” former employee Angela Olson told MPR News. 


MIA Director Katherine Crawford Luber countered that Cozzolino “was not fired because of his activity as an ally, [but] despite it.” She explained to MPR News that “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 also stated that MIA’s “journey towards a more diverse, more equitable, more inclusive place has nothing to do with [Cozzolino’s] termination.” She added that “activism and allyship have important roles to play in this process,” but believes that “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.”


Following Luber’s 2020 assumption of leadership, over 100 employees have left MIA, a statistic detailed in underlined text in a second open letter addressed to the Board of Directors. 


This letter was written by a group of former employees. 


“Many of us did not choose to leave MIA because of better opportunities or because we wanted to move on,” it stated. “Over the past four years, we have experienced a consistent pattern of abuse, including racist remarks, unfounded termination, performative nods to equity, and gaslighting.”


A 2020 exhibition titled “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration,” which was curated under Cozzolino’s supervision, prompted particular concern. According to a survey conducted to groups of local immigrants and refugees by former MIA Activation Specialist Aniessa Antar, the exhibition’s portrayal of immigration was classified as both inaccurate and insensitive.


In writing, Cozzolino was notified that the reason behind his termination had to do with a correspondence with a donor that didn’t follow museum guidelines. However, he — as well as members of a MIA employee union — have speculated that instead, the firing had to do with his criticism of the leadership.


“We want to emphasize that our intention comes from a love and a will to restore MIA’s integrity and ensure its future as an institution that truly represents and serves our diverse community,” the former employees’ letter states.


While waiting on a response from the Board of Directors, MIA employees remain optimistic for the future of the museum if key executive issues are addressed and corrected.

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