Problems With Controversial Young At Art Program Were No Secret

Numerous documents obtained by REDBROWARD show Young At Art (YAA) officials and Broward County leaders were aware of problems with controversial exhibits over a year ago. Last November, REDBROWARD detailed issues surrounding a report from an independent consultant hired by the County to examine the financial situation at YAA. One of the main issues uncovered by the consultant was the Bedlam Lorenz Assembly (BLA) program operated under the guidance of Zack Spechler, the son of of YAA executive director Mindy Shrago.

Earlier this month, REDBROWARD exposed controversial exhibits displayed under the YAA/BLA banner. One exhibit, entitled “Naughty By Nature,” featured nude men and women and pornographic images. Video and photographs show children at the event. While this raunchy exhibit was not held at the children’s museum in Davie, it was clearly sponsored by Young At Art.

Another exhibit curated by Zack Spechler featured men and women brnading themselves with a “Pen15” stamp. If one looks closely, “Pen15” looks like the word “penis.” Patrons were encouraged to join Zack Spechler’s “Pen15 Club.”

Chasing Rabbits

In her report, independent consultant Louise Stevens singled out another YAABLA exhibit held at the children’s museum. Stevens worried the BLA exhibits created potential liability issues for the museum and Broward County. She singled out the “Chasing Rabbits” sound exhibit by Tina La Porta. Stevens wrote, “Chasing Rabbits…played over the PA system…and would have been heard throughout the building.”

REDBROWARD listened to Chasing Rabbits by LaPorta. According to the artist, it deals with her mental illness diagnosis. It features disturbing voices and sounds not suitable for children. Stevens wrote it would be hard for parents to prevent children from hearing it in common spaces. (A rebuttal from YAA obtained by REDBROWARD claims the performance played after hours at an adults-only event.)

Spechler Hurt YAA Staff Morale?

In addition to the nature of his exhibits, the independent consultant detailed financial and whistleblower issues caused by Zack Spechler’s role at Young At Art. Despite a conflict of interest policy at YAA, Louise Stevens reported that Zack Spechler and his sister Ali Shrago Spechler were paid by the museum. She wrote, “Yet the family conflict of interest is clearly evident on the YAA web site, has been evident in numerous news and magazine stories about Zack Spechler’s work in the museum, and is clearly evident on the BLA web site.” While Stevens argued the YAA board was unaware of the conflict, the museum rebuttal provided to REDBROWARD claims otherwise. The museum said it was “inaccurate” as Spechler was listed on the IRS Form 990. The rebuttal claims, “Board members have been aware of family involvement since the inception of YAA.”

Stevens questioned whether Young At Art’s whistle blower policy was effective. She wrote, “Senior staff members expressed fear when they requested the opportunity to speak individually to the consultant about YAABLA and about having to report to and follow the directives of the Director’s son.” Under the whistle blower policy, YAA staffers are to direct their complaints to the CEO or chair of the board.

Stevens wrote, “Unknowingly, the board has been complicit with the CEO in maintaining Zack Spechler’s relationship with the organization, but in concern of reprisal from the CEO or Mr. Spechler, staff were unable to go to the board to utilize any whistle blowing opportunities. The result, at best, is that of negatively impacting morale as well as creating difficulties for how senior staff are able to carry out their jobs.

Stevens reported that Mindy Shrago was present in the room during all her interviews with staff. In private meetings, Stevens claimed staffers did not want to discuss nepotism, fearful of “retaliation from the CEO and/or Mr. Spechler.”

In its terse rebuttal, museum officials wrote, “YAA disagrees with these statements.”

YAA Board Changes Official Stance On Mindy Shrago’s Son

Young At Art was more forthcoming about Zack Spechler in its more formal response to the independent consultant’s report. The museum stated Spechler was hired as a contractor to “support the curating team…which includes a team of four YAA staffers.” YAA claimed Spechler’s duties included procurement of local artists and special guests for a summer workshop as well as “design of exhibits.” The museum stated Zack Spechler was paid $17,000 for 2013-2014 and $24,000 for 2014-2015.

Young At Art’s response stated, “We agree that this was not as transparent as it should have been and definitely appears as a conflict of interest. We have asked Zack to document his achievement and contributions and have them reviewed by the board so they can make a determination on value received.

YAA stated the position will be changed and Mindy Shrago would recuse herself from the process.

In August 2015, Jose Pagan, then the YAA Board Chairman, delivered an official response to Broward County Adminstrator Bertha Henry. YAA addressed “key finding 11” which focused on Zack Spechler, Bedlam Lorenz Assembly (BLA) and the conflict of interest.  YAA stated the BLA program had been “eliminated.”

YAA wrote, “YAA’s conflict of interest of policy was updated on June 9, 2015 to include both board and staff and will be formally approved by YAA’s Board at its September 2015 meeting. The updated policy will require prior approval by the Board of all conflict situations.

As to payments, YAA stated BLA “did not receive a check. To be clear, some of the members, as individual contractors, were paid for their services as artists and exhibit fabricators.

Pagan and the YAA Board made it clear that while Spechler’s payments appeared on the IRS Form 990, “Approval of the Board of Directors was not obtained prior to these disclosures.”

Within a few months, many of the Young At Art board members were removed. Jose Pagan was replaced by David Di Pietro, a close personal friend of Mindy Shrago’s husband, Jay Spechler.

As REDBROWARD reported earlier this year, David Di Pietro was removed as chairman of Broward Health by Governor Rick Scott amid charges of intimidation and interference in ongoing investigations.

On Tuesday, the Broward County Commission will discuss giving control of Young At Art  to the Broward County Cultural Division.


Broward Children’s Museum Pricey Preschool Tuition Rivals Local Private High School Costs

The cost to attend the Young At Art Children’s Museum Preschool rivals tuition costs at Broward’s top private high schools. Established in 2012, the preschool caters to children between ages 3 and 4 years old.  The preschool was funded in part with a grant from the PNC Foundation. Since it offers VPK (Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten) classes, it is likely Young At Art preschool receives other government funding.

Despite the private and government funding, Young At Art preschool tuition still tops out at $10,000 per year. According to the YAA website, VPK classes from 8:30am to 11:30am are free with a VPK voucher. In order to receive the voucher, families must qualify based upon income levels.

Without a VPK voucher, preschool classes from 8:30am to 3:30pm cost $7,500 per year. If a child needs to stay until 5pm, the cost rises to $10,000 per year. There is a non-refundable $150 dollar registration fee. Also, students MUST buy a $17 uniform shirt at the museum gift store.

By comparison, top local private high schools like St. Thomas Aquinas cost around $10,000 per year.

What do students at the Young At Art preschool get for $10,000 per year? Not much.

REDBROWARD obtained a power point presentation from created by YAA preschool director Gina Gates detailing the program. Gates presentation claims students get a “hands-on, minds-on approach to learning.” This includes “daily field trips into the museum.” Another part of the curriculum includes visits to the attached County library “for storytime and for the children to check out books.”

Gates states the preschool is licensed for 22 students with 2 full time teachers and 1 aide. She states 14 families are receiving VPK assistance. This means 8 families are paying thousands of dollars for museum fields trips and library visits.

Gates states Young At Art preschool revenue for the 2013-2014 school year was $144,775 dollars. She claims YAA will add another 22 student class for the 2014-2015 school year. Gates writes the projected preschool revenue would jump to $289,550 dollars for this year.

Gates concludes with a look to the future. She writes, “We are currently looking into the possibility of expanding our preschool program and using another one of classroom spaces as a preschool class. With such a demand we are confident that we can make this one of the top preschools in Broward County!”

If the YAA preschool is so successful, why does the museum need to rework its financial deal with the County for the third time? Why doesn’t the County open preschools at all library branches? Surely the School Board of Broward County would welcome the competition.

Commissioner Wants County To Take Control Of Museum & Preschool

As REDBROWARD reported, Broward County Commissioner Lois Wexler wants County Administrator Bertha Henry to cease all negotiations with YAA chairman David Di Pietro and executive director Mindy Shrago.  At Tuesday’s commission meeting, Wexler wants to discuss the Broward County Cultural Division assuming control of the museum and preschool.

Last month, Commissioner Wexler asked Ms. Henry why Young At Art failed to submit a new proposal for financial relief. Was Young At Art “playing games” to avoid dealing with the term-limited Wexler. Some insiders wondered if chairman Di Pietro hoped to avoid the matter while his wife, Judge Nina Weatherly Di Pietro, is facing re-election.

Broward taxpayers deserve answers.

On Tuesday, Shrago and Di Pietro will have to answer to Lois Wexler and the rest of Broward County Commission.

EDITOR’S NOTE: an earlier version of this story was unclear about the presentation by YAA preschool director Gina Gates. The power point was created by Ms. Gates. REDBROWARD did not get this material from Ms. Gates. We apologize for any confusion.

Broward Commissioner Wants County To Take Control Of Young At Art Children’s Museum

After two weeks of scandal involving financial issues and hyper-sexualized content at the Young At Art children’s museum, Broward County Commissioner Lois Wexler has had enough. Wexler has put the troubled children’s museum on next week’s commission meeting agenda. Wexler wants the County to cease all negotiations with Young At Art (YAA). More importantly, Wexler wants her fellow commissioners to discuss putting YAA and its pricey preschool under the control of the Broward County Cultural Division.

If successful, this would mark the end of co-founder Mindy Shrago’s reign at Young At Art.

After intimidation games failed, REDBROWARD exposed sexualized exhibits sponsored by YAA curators and artists. These included a Naughty By Nature exhibit which apparently exposed children to pornographic imagery. This exhibit was curated by Shrago’s son Zack Spechler, a paid employee of YAA.

REDBROWARD presented videos of Shrago attending a political party hosted by her daughter, Ali Spechler. In the video, a laughing Shrago whacks a Donald Trump pinata, while her topless daughter rants about Bernie Sanders.

In another video, Ali Spechler hosted a party which vilified the political enemies of her father, Jay Spechler. At the end of the video attacking Judges Victor Tobin and Lee Seidman, Ali Spechler participates in a wet t-shirt contest.

Earlier this week, REDBROWARD revealed Shrago and YAA fundraisers continued to received pay increases even as they begged the County to renegotiate their financial deals.

Federal income tax forms filed by YAA in 2012 show Mindy Shrago’s salary jumped from $125,000 to $141,000 after Broward taxpayers built the new facility in Davie. Shrago received hefty raises in 2013 and 2014. She currently receives a $157,000 paycheck as executive director

Last month, Wexler asked Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry why Young At Art (YAA) had failed to submit their latest proposal for financial relief. Some believed YAA was “playing games” to avoid dealing with the term-limited Wexler. Others wondered if YAA chairman David Di Pietro hoped to avoid the matter while his wife, Judge Nina Weatherly Di Pietro, is facing re-election.

There is no more avoiding the issues facing Young At Art. Broward taxpayers deserve answers. On Tuesday, Shrago, Spechler and Di Pietro will have to answer to the Broward County Commission.