Chris Appleton, the executive director of WonderRoot and one of the city’s most prominent arts leaders, was placed on leave Friday while the nonprofit launches an investigation into allegations of misconduct and mismanagement that were posted on social media Thursday by a group of artists and former WonderRoot employees.
The open letter was signed by eight members of Atlanta’s arts community: MINT founding director Erica Jamison, artists Stephanie Dowda and Amanda Mills (both of whom are past ARTS ATL contributors), Angela Davis Johnson, Jessica Caldas, Matthew Rosenfeld, Jennifer Lobsenz and Stephanie Kong. The letter was signed anonymously by seven others.
The signees said they have “endured egregious and systematic harm” under Appleton’s leadership at the arts organization. The group also accused the WonderRoot board of being “complicit in the harm and abuse” caused by Appleton because it refused to act when grievances were brought to the attention of board members several times since 2014.
Appleton declined to comment when reached by e-mail, and forwarded the e-mail request to Liz Lapidus Public Relations.
Mitch Reiner, WonderRoot’s board chair, announced in a prepared statement released through Lapidus early Friday afternoon that Appleton had been placed on leave. Olivia Greene-Knight will be the organization’s acting executive director. She is currently director of operations and finance.
Reiner said in the statement that WonderRoot’s board is committed to ensuring a “fulfilling and respectful experience” for all who work with the organization.
“Since learning of these accusations, the executive committee of the board of directors has reached out to those who have brought these issues to our attention to listen and learn more about the accusations,” Reiner said in the statement. “We have initiated an investigation and are resolute in our focus of doing what is in the best interest of the organization and all who contribute to it.”
None of the women who signed the open letter, however, had been contacted by board members since it was posted on Instagram, Dowda said Friday afternoon after Reiner’s statement was read to her.
She said she is skeptical of an internal investigation because the board has not taken action on previous complaints. “Since 2014, we have given the board information about a multitude of allegations, and the board has taken no action,” Dowda said. “Doing an investigation now feels like continuing to not believe women and not believe people of color, and continuing to be beholden to a harmful executive director.”
Friday evening, about 90 minutes after this story originally posted, Reiner and WonderRoot’s board of directors issued a new statement addressed directly to those who signed the open letter. The statement promised the investigation of the allegations will be conducted by an independent third party.
“Over the last 36 hours, we have undergone the difficult but necessary exercise of better understanding the experiences and frustrations of our staff and those who have worked with us,” the statement said. “This process has left us deeply saddened at the pain that people . . . have expressed. The board and entire organization sincerely apologize for any hurt, frustration or treatment not indicative of our mission and the spirit of WonderRoot.”
In a text message Saturday, Dowda said she is not satisfied with the WonderRoot board’s latest response. “The passive language the board uses continues to show their inability to see this harm and be responsible for their role in enabling an abuser,” she said.
The open letter from artists and former WonderRoot staff members alleges the following:
— WonderRoot, under Appleton, has a “top-down culture of inveterate disrespect and intimidation including frequent outbursts and insults, consistent violation of personal and professional boundaries, inappropriate attempts at intimacy . . . and deflection of any responsibility for mistakes.”
— Appleton has implemented within the structure of WonderRoot the “same dynamics of racism, classism and heteropatriarchy that the organization purports to dismantle, including racial insults and language, solely taking credit for . . . presenting the work of [people of color], women and LGBTQ staff.” In addition, he has made “direct character attacks . . . through brutal and public reprimanding and the deliberate manipulation of power dynamics.”
— Under Appleton’s leadership, WonderRoot is financially dishonest with employees, artists and funders, including “inaccurate and incomplete accounting of financial records, failure to pay staff and artists on time or at all and refusing access to basic budgetary information.”
— Appleton has mismanaged basic operations including “cutting off staff health insurance without providing advance notice” and forcing staff to work in a building without air conditioning or heat.
“Past harm can never be erased, but future harm can be minimized,” the letter states. “Until Chris can conduct himself in an ethical, honest way, we feel strongly that he should not serve in an executive leadership role, nor serve on the board of any arts or social justice organization.”
WonderRoot was founded in 2004 by Appleton, Alex West (a former ARTS ATL board member) and Witt Wisebram. The organization opened the WonderRoot Community Arts Center on Memorial Drive as a community gathering spot and creative work space in 2008, and has partnered with the High Museum of Art, MARTA and the Atlanta BeltLine. Most recently, WonderRoot partnered with the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee to commission 11 artists to paint murals across the city focused on Atlanta’s journey in civil rights and social justice.
The organization has announced plans for the WonderRoot Center for Arts & Social Change, a 54,000-square foot, eight-acre campus for artists in Reynoldstown that includes studio space for artists, a visual arts gallery, production facilities and a performance venue.
Appleton, an Atlanta native who graduated from Georgia State University, has served as the face and creative force behind WonderRoot and emerged as one of city’s most prominent and visible arts leaders.
He is a present or past board member of numerous organizations: the Georgia Arts Network, the Atlanta BeltLine Public Art and Preservation Advisory Board, Atlanta Celebrates Photography, Burnaway and Eyedrum. In 2014, he was named the Americans for the Arts National Emerging Leader award winner.
Dowda, who served as WonderRoot’s creative director in 2013 and is one of the voices behind the open letter, said that numerous female and female-identifying artists discovered that they shared similar experiences with Appleton at WonderRoot. “We independently went to the board over the years, and felt the board was not protecting the community they serve,” she said.
Someone with knowledge of WonderRoot’s board actions said that new internal HR policies were put in place in response to the previous complaints.
Dowda said that was not enough. “Chris Appleton has not changed in his actions,” she said. In comments on Instagram, several other women conveyed similar experiences with Appleton.
The open letter to WonderRoot’s board does not go into specific details of the allegations, and Dowda declined to discuss her own experiences. “We’re all speaking collectively through the letter by design,” she said.
Dowda said everyone who signed the letter has experienced more than one incident, all similar in nature. “We’re tired of carrying the burden of harm,” she said. “When Chris Appleton runs a social justice organization and when his actions go against that, it’s hard to reconcile. There’s been an erosion of trust in the organization throughout the community.”