Robert Lynch, chief executive of Americans for the Arts, will take a paid leave of absence as the national arts organization investigates its practices related to racial equity and diversity and complaints about its workplace environment. A high-profile arts leader who has spent 35 years leading AFTA, Lynch also serves on the Biden-Harris transition team for the arts and humanities. There is no indication that he will step away from that role.
Lynch’s decision on Wednesday comes after a Washington Post report revealed widespread condemnation of AFTA by advisory council members and current and former staff, who criticized what they have deemed insufficient efforts toward racial equity, transparency and accountability. The article also described charges of a hostile workplace that included sexual harassment, retaliation and intimidation.
Some of those critics have called for Lynch, 71, to resign as leader of the well-funded and influential organization. AFTA supports the nonprofit arts with research, policymaking and political advocacy aimed at amplifying the economic and social value of the arts.
In a statement announcing Lynch’s leave, the group’s board of directors said it has hired Proskauer Rose, an international law firm based in New York City, to investigate the hostile work environment claims. In addition, the organization hired the Hewlin Group, a consulting firm for employment issues with offices in D.C., to review its workplace policies and procedures. Those policies are “including, but not limited to, progress regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion at AFTA,” the board said.
Lynch’s leave is effectively immediately, according to a statement from the organization.
“It is Bob’s strong belief — one that is regrettably shared by the Board — that the most appropriate course of action now is to allow the investigations to proceed without distraction and in the best interests of the mission of the organization and the field. Bob will remain on paid administrative leave while the pending outside investigations are underway,” according to the statement. Lynch and other AFTA representatives declined a request for interviews.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Nolen Bivens, 66, will serve as interim president and CEO. Bivens is a past board member of AFTA.
Lynch’s critics have called for him to step down from the transition team, too, saying his track record for equity and diversity disqualifies him for the post. The transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Since July, volunteer members of AFTA have quietly pushed AFTA to improve its racial equity and diversity. Disappointed in what they described as the organization’s foot-dragging, they took their complaints public.
AFTA twice posted statements on its website, the first describing its achievements and recommitting to a 2016 statement of equity and the second directly responding to the public critiques. On Wednesday, the organization again responded to the controversy.
“Over the last weeks it has become evident that despite our best efforts, we have not met our goals to lead, serve, and advance the diverse networks of entities and individuals who cultivate the arts in America. We have listened to the voices within the arts community calling for institutional equity and racial justice within our organization and the wider industry, as well as a greater commitment to the artists and arts organizations in need of support.”
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