After FBI-Basquiat scandal, Orlando Museum of Art needs transparency

After FBI-Basquiat scandal, Orlando Museum of Art needs transparency

These are difficult times for the Orlando Museum of Art.

The museum made international headlines when the FBI seized an entire exhibition, said to be a spectacular collection of previously unseen works by famed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, amid concerns that many pieces were fakes.

The incident led to international derision among critics who mocked Orlando – the theme park town trying to tell cultural fairy tales.

But for most of the people who live here — those who really know Central Florida’s rich cultural scene and who don’t define this community by a quick trip to Disney — the episode was painful.

In fact, many serious Central Floridians aren’t kidding. They want to see the museum right and succeed.

But here’s the problem: The museum and its leadership seem to be doing very little to help themselves.

The museum insists it is focused on a rosy future, but has yet to account for its past – creating more problems instead.

The most recent embarrassment involved the resignation of the museum’s interim director, Luder Whitlock – a guy who had touted the museum as its savior.

Last week, the Orlando Sentinel ran a story about how Whitlock met with mayors and donors to assure them everything was fine. Museum Board Chairwoman Cynthia Brumback also wrote a guest column, telling everyone the museum was now under “Dr. Whitlock’s steady command.”

Six days later, Whitlock resigned.

Talk about a red flag.

Meanwhile, other councilors say they were told to keep their mouths shut. One said: “Leadership has asked councilors not to speak publicly at this stage.”

What a lousy way to build trust. And what an insulting way to expose volunteer board members.

The museum announced Friday that Brumback is no longer chairman. She was replaced by Orlando attorney Mark Elliott, who responded to questions I asked earlier this week without actually answering most of them — including why Whitlock resigned, who told the other trustees to shut up and why.

The museum doesn’t seem to understand you can’t move forward until you account for your past.

And the museum still hasn’t spoken out about the biggest question — why it continued to host an art show after the FBI began asking questions.

In Brumback’s piece, she said the FBI alerted the museum to concerns (in the form of a grand jury subpoena) in July 2021. Another full seven months later, the museum opened the Basquiat exhibition as if nothing was amiss.

We don’t know if the full board knew about the FBI’s concerns and just decided to push ahead anyway, or if board members were kept in the dark and are now dutifully following orders to keep quiet about who knows what when. Neither scenario inspires confidence.

Not in me. And not in people like Alan Ginsburg, one of Orlando’s most generous philanthropists who also served as a trustee on the museum’s board years ago.

When asked how he might have reacted to news about the FBI if he were still on the board, Ginsburg said: “I would have said, Holy shucks, this is serious.” (Except he didn’t say “shucks”.)

Ginsburg went on to say, “You can’t just bury your head in the sand and hope you sell a lot of socks in the gift shop.”

Despite that, Ginsburg did not make his comments. On the contrary, just last year he offered to help fund the Orlando museum’s recent expansion plans.

Ginsburg says he always wanted the museum to be more than it was. “In many communities, the museum is a hive of the community’s appetite for culture,” he said. “Orlando never rose to the occasion.”

So Ginsburg offered to help pay for a new downtown campus for the museum — one with a rooftop exhibit by world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. The museum shared news of Ginsburg’s generosity with great optimism last fall. Less trumpeted was a follow-up story in the Sentinel last week which said the plans had “broken down”.

Again, things are obviously not right.

The Sentinel’s arts and culture writer Matt Palm struggled to get museum leaders to answer questions — even about quirky basics, like what the museum might want featured in the Sentinel’s Fall Arts season preview.

Instead, the museum hired a crisis communications firm that appears to have done little to stem the crisis so far.

Elliott said the museum now has 24 trustees, after a purge of members who stayed on the board too long.

The leaders who are still there need to explain what went wrong and what they are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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Remember: One of the most damning parts of this whole mess was an FBI affidavit that says the museum’s since-fired director, Aaron De Groft, tried to silence an art expert who said she couldn’t verify that all the paintings are not real.

“Do you want us to put out there that you’re $60 grand to write this? Ok then. Shut up,” De Groft wrote according to the affidavit. “You took the money. Stop being holier than thou. Be quiet now is my best advice.”

There seems to be a disturbing theme of Orlando museum leaders telling others to shut up.

I do not believe any councilors had bad intentions. I’m sure most had altruistic motives and simply wanted to help. But every nonprofit scandal I’ve ever covered — including at Central Florida’s old blood bank — has one thing in common: Board members don’t provide enough scrutiny.

Sometime between the time the FBI visited and the Basquiat exhibit opening months later, there appears to have been a lack of investigation and accountability. And there is still a lack of transparency.

Ginsburg wants the museum to succeed. Me too. But you can’t just wish your problems away any more than you can wish a fake work of art into authenticity.

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