Three weeks after the WonderRoot board of directors promised an independent investigation of misconduct allegations leveled by a group of artists against former executive director Chris Appleton, the nonprofit’s investigator has yet to reach out to any of the alleged victims to hear their stories.
Fifteen artists — seven of them anonymously — posted an open letter on social media on February 7 that accused Appleton of abusive behaviors and demanded his removal. Appleton was placed on leave the next day, and WonderRoot’s board issued a statement that promised an investigation by an independent third party.
Ten days later, on February 18, the board accepted Appleton’s resignation from the nonprofit, which he helped found in 2004, and said Appleton would continue to consult with WonderRoot during a transition period.
In a letter to WonderRoot’s board that was shared with ARTS ATL, the artists who signed the original open letter said they have yet to be contacted by an investigator.
“We are glad to hear you have identified a third-party investigator, although we note that none of us has yet to be contacted,” the letter states. “While your impulse to prioritize crisis management and public relations is clear, we are hopeful that, moving forward, you will instead elevate transparency and accountability.”
WonderRoot’s board has hired Stripe Reputation, an Atlanta crisis management firm. The board issued a statement through Stripe Reputation on February 18 saying a third-party investigator had been identified to “lead an inquiry into the matter.” The statement said the board has “strived to understand and address the matter fairly and transparently.”
Stripe Reputation’s Craig Kronenberger did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Thursday. Individual board members have not been made available to speak to the allegations.
(A representative from Stripe Reputation sent a statement from WonderRoot late Friday afternoon: “As an organization, we care deeply about every person connected to WonderRoot and are committed to creating an organization and work environment worthy of our mission and reflective of the passions and perspectives of those who support us and that we serve. To this end, independent investigators are currently conducting an investigation into the allegations. This investigation is an essential step in our organization’s evolution and upon its completion, we will share information about our next steps as an organization.”)
WonderRoot was formed in 2004 as a nonprofit to promote social justice through art. The organization has evolved into one of Atlanta’s most prominent arts nonprofits. It 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
In their original letter, the 15 signees said the organization under Appleton’s leadership had 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.”
Both letters were signed by eight members of Atlanta’s arts community: MINT founding director Erica Jamison, artists Stephanie Dowda and Amanda Mills (Full disclosure: both Dowda and Mills are past ARTS ATL contributors), Angela Davis Johnson, Jessica Caldas, Matthew Rosenfeld, Jennifer Lobsenz and Stephanie Kong. The letters were also signed anonymously by seven others.
A petition signed by nearly 400 people that condemns “the egregious and systemic harm that has been perpetrated at the behest of . . . Appleton’s leadership” was also forwarded to the board.
The letter’s signees have also accused the organization’s board of directors of enabling the behavior, saying they had brought complaints to board members starting in 2014 that went unheeded.
The signees called on the WonderRoot board to include during the transition process the voices of minorities and artists who have worked with WonderRoot and place them into “the permanent fabric of the leadership structure going forward.”
The letter notes that WonderRoot’s board has promised transparency and accountability and that those terms are used on the organization’s list of official values. “We implore you to demonstrate your values of transparency and accountability,” the letter states. “For years, we reached out to the board of directors seeking support and remediation, which was never provided. An investigation that does not explore the board’s own complicity in perpetuating harm will not be complete and will fail to make meaningful organizational change.”
The signees also said they hope that the person hired to investigate the allegations will reach out not only to those who signed the original letter but to the others who have reached out to board members with similar complaints. “Only an honest internal investigation will eternally arrest the culture of harm at WonderRoot,” the letter states.