The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Longtime national arts leader retires amid accusations of hostile workplace, racial inequity

Robert L. Lynch at a National YoungArts Foundation gala in January 2020. (Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for National YoungArts Foundation)
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Robert L. Lynch, the influential leader of Americans for the Arts who has been on paid leave since December as his organization investigated complaints about racial inequity and a lack of diversity in the workplace, has agreed to retire as its president and chief executive, the board announced in a statement Thursday.

Lynch led the organization for 35 years, until Dec. 16, when he went on leave. A high-profile arts leader, Lynch served on the Biden-Harris transition team for the arts and humanities and was rumored to be a front-runner for chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He earned $922,560 in 2019, according to AFTA’s tax returns.

In its statement issued Thursday, the board thanked Lynch, 71, for his service to the advocacy organization and to the arts across the United States. “Bob has dedicated his life to the arts, in particular increasing access to the arts for everyone, and we know he will continue to be a passionate advocate for many years to come,” it said.

The board also approved the appointment of retired Army Brig. Gen. Nolen Bivens, 67, to replace Lynch as president and chief executive. Bivens had been serving as interim president during Lynch’s leave. He is a former AFTA board member.

Lynch’s retirement comes more than five months after a Washington Post report revealing widespread charges from advisory board members and current and former staffers that AFTA had done little to address calls for racial equity, transparency and accountability. The article also described charges of a hostile workplace that included sexual harassment, retaliation and intimidation.

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Some of his critics called for Lynch to resign immediately from the Washington-based organization, which supports the nonprofit arts with research, policymaking and political advocacy aimed at amplifying the economic and social value of the arts.

In response to the Post report, AFTA’s board hired Proskauer Rose, an international law firm based in New York City, to investigate employees’ claims of a hostile work environment, and the Hewlin Group, a consulting firm for employment issues with offices in Washington, to review its workplace policies and procedures, including those related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Those investigations have ended, according to the board’s statement. It did not disclose their findings.

AFTA’s decision to not share the results of the investigations was criticized by Caitlin Strokosch, president and CEO of the National Performance Network, a group dedicated to racial and cultural justice.

“That total lack of transparency and disinterest in accountability is about as AFTA as AFTA can get,” Strokosch said Thursday about the board’s statement. “They are so steeped in their own sense of power that they would not think that was egregious. The impression is that they are trying to sweep all of this under the rug, and by Bob retiring they hope people will forget.”

Retired arts leader Anthony Radich said Lynch has taken the fall for the board, which he said is equally responsible for the organization’s problems.

“Unless [Bivens] is willing to clean house, get rid of the crony culture on the board and revitalize the staff,” it won’t matter, he said. “It’s important to take this step, but it is just a first step.

“The board has been lax in its oversight, not demanding of results, and the same core leadership has been in place for 20 years,” added Radich, former executive director of the Western States Arts Federation and former chair of the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs.

AFTA received a $1.2 million loan last year as part of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, funds it used to support 61 jobs. (An AFTA spokesman did not answer a query about whether that number included Lynch’s post.) The organization also received $50,000 in emergency coronavirus relief funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. AFTA has an endowment of more than $100 million, its tax records show.

Lynch and Bivens did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Roberto Bedoya, cultural-affairs manager for the city of Oakland, Calif., thanked Lynch for his service but said he believed the field would benefit from new leadership.

“America is much different today than when AFTA was born. This is a critical time for the future of AFTA to be reflective of the multiplicity and diversity of the nation,” he said. “We need leadership that is mindful of this critical moment, when America is reimagining itself.”

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