Former WonderRoot executive director Chris Appleton is seen here at the 54,000-square-foot elementary school that became the headquarters of the Reynoldstown arts nonprofit. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ousted former head of WonderRoot charged with ‘profanity,’ a bad temper

After a three-month investigation by a firm specializing in  employment law, the ousted director of the community arts organization WonderRoot appears to be responsible not for racial insults or financial impropriety, but for having a bad temper.

Mitch Reiner, chairman of the WonderRoot board, said the investigators determined that Chris Appleton engaged in  unprofessional behavior, yelling and using profanity when upset.

“But the investigators did not find that he targeted any particular group of individuals,” said Reiner, adding that he did not use racial epithets. The report also concluded that Appleton was not responsible for any financial mismanagement, beyond paying certain bills late, nor was he guilty of any sexual impropriety.

The investigators, from McFadden Davis LLC, interviewed 35 people, including all signatories of an open complaint against Appleton.  

Appleton is co-founder of the arts organization, which he led from a scrappy collective in 2004 to an influential force in the city’s arts community.

Chris Appleton HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin

On Feb. 7 a group of colleagues and former associates posted an open letter online accusing Appleton of  “racism, classism, and heteropatriarchy,” “financial dishonesty” and “mismanagement of basic operations,” including “forcing staff to work in a building without AC or heat.”

They also charged him with “inappropriate” attempts at intimacy, and demanded that he be removed from office.

Appleton was placed on a leave of absence, and then offered his resignation, which the board accepted.

The results of the investigation can be seen on the WonderRoot website. 

One of the signatories, Stephanie Kong, a former program director at WonderRoot from 2015 to 2017, complained that staff at the organization had approached board members in the past with complaints about Appleton, but had seen no response.

Reiner acknowledged that the board began addressing those complaints in 2017, seeking to recruit human resources professionals as board members and requiring Appleton to  take “monthly executive coaching.”

The board did not report back to staff about those efforts, said Reiner, which led to the impression that the complaints were being ignored.

Brian Tolleson, former interim CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, has been named as interim director at WonderRoot.

Reiner said Tolleson has “a long track record of repeatedly leading profit and nonprofit organizations through times of change just like this.”

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. 

Appleton has resisted requests for comment on the events that began in February.

On Tuesday he gave the Atlanta Journal-Constitution his first remarks on his departure, in a texted statement:

“For the past 15 years I have been focused on WonderRoot’s external growth and development and apologize for not doing more to ensure there was a stronger culture of respect toward WonderRoot‬’s team members and the impact this caused. I look forward to seeing ‪WonderRoot‬ continue to make an impact in Atlanta’s cultural community and feel confident in its potential to do so.”

As to whether he will miss Appleton’s leadership, Reiner said “as important as Chris was to this organization, our organization is bigger than one person.”

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