WonderRoot executive director Chris Appleton is on leave as the board investigates complaints about his behavior. He is seen here at the 54,000-square-foot former elementary school that became the headquarters of the Reynoldstown arts nonprofit. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Executive director on leave at WonderRoot after artists level claims

Chris Appleton, co-founder of the nonprofit arts organization WonderRoot, has been placed on leave after a group of artists and former employees accused him of a laundry list of complaints, including neglect, sexism and financial impropriety.

The complaints, included in a letter posted Feb. 7 on social media and reproduced in the arts publication Burnaway, accuse Appleton of “financial dishonesty,” “mismanagement of basic operations,” and a “top-down workplace culture of inveterate disrespect and intimidation.”

The claims also include “inappropriate attempts at intimacy inside and outside of the workplace.”

The letter is signed by eight artists, including Stephanie Dowda, a former creative director at WonderRoot.

Many members of the board of WonderRoot declined to comment or did not return calls or emails. Neither did Appleton. WonderRoot posted a reply on its website that reads, in part, “we remain committed to ensuring a fulfilling and respectful experience for all who work with WonderRoot.”

The arts and advocacy organization has a long history in Atlanta. It is partially responsible for the mural on the King Memorial MARTA station, and recently helped coordinate the “Off the Wall” project, in which artists painted more than two dozen murals celebrating the city’s civil rights legacy in downtown Atlanta and in historic neighborhoods in anticipation of the Super Bowl.

RelatedUp to 30 civil rights-themed murals to grace Atlanta before Super Bowl

The posted response from WonderRoot added, “We have also initiated an investigation into the matter and are resolute in our focus of doing what is in the best interest of the organization and all who contribute to it. Effective immediately, we have placed Chris Appleton on leave for the duration of the investigation. Olivia Greene-Knight, WonderRoot’s director of operations and finance, will be our acting executive director.”

Stephanie Kong, one of the signers of the letter and former program director at WonderRoot from 2015 to 2017, said she had not experienced any sexual impropriety from Appleton, but that she was the object of his verbal abuse.

She left in 2017, she said, “because no one has ever treated me the way that he has, no one has ever spoken to me the way that he has, no one has exercised that sort of brutal language or treatment, no one ever shamed or blamed me the way he has.”

The complaint against Appleton was also signed by seven people listing themselves as “Anonymous.” It claims that past infractions by Appleton had been brought to the attention of the board, but have been ignored.

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Craig Kronenberger, who identified himself as a representative of WonderRoot, said Monday the board has heard complaints before, but none that resemble the current list of complaints. He added that the board has been swift in taking action in the past, and said it is “incorrect” to say that the board ignores complaints.

Because no specific infractions are listed in the public complaint, the board has refrained from answering the complaint, he said, adding, “the way it was written, was not what the board has heard or anyone has heard previously.”

WonderRoot was founded in 2004, as a performance and studio space and a headquarters for the creative arts.

In 2014 the organization received a go-ahead from the city of Atlanta to move from its 4,000-square-foot Memorial Drive location to a 54,000-square-foot former elementary school in Reynoldstown in eastern Atlanta.

Kronenberger said the investigators hired by the board hope to complete their work very quickly. “We’re taking it very seriously,” he said. “It’s a big deal to us.”

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