An Orlando Museum’s Disputed Basquiats Are Gone. Its Leadership Is, Too.

An Orlando Museum’s Disputed Basquiats Are Gone. Its Leadership Is, Too.

Since the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the Orlando Museum of Art in June and seized 25 paintings the museum attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat but whose authenticity has been questioned, a cascading wave of departures has of the controversial museum scuttled.

Aaron De Groft, who brought the controversial Basquiat show to the museum, was fired from his position as the museum’s director in June. Last week, several members of the museum’s board of trustees who discussed plans to seek the resignation of board chairwoman Cynthia Brumback — over concerns that she had kept the board in the dark about the growing problems with the Basquiat -show – was instead ousted from the board itself. The museum cited a previously overlooked rule in its bylaws limiting trustees to nine-year terms, which the ousted trustees all exceeded.

Hours after announcing their departure, the museum had another announcement: Without offering any explanation, it said it had “accepted the resignation” of its new interim director, Luder Whitlock. That was barely six weeks after succeeding De Groft, and just days after Brumback praised his “steady command” in an op-ed in The Orlando Sentinel. Since then, there has been more upheaval: Brumback has stepped down as chairman of the troubled museum, but she remains on its board.

“I call it the Basquiat fiasco,” Winifred Sharp, a retired judge and one of the trustees removed from the board last week, said in an interview. “I could cry I’m so unhappy about it. My family helped start that museum, we’ve worked to support them since the 1920s and it’s always meant a lot to me. I’m sorry to leave it in the mess it’s in right now, but I did my best.”

This mess, as Sharp sees it, was the result of how Brumback responded in July 2021 when the museum received a subpoena from the FBI. It demanded “any and all” communication between the museum’s board, its employees and the owners of 25 works of art by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” around which the museum has built a major exhibition.

The subpoena arrived seven months before the Basquiat show opened to the public, but Brumback and De Groft, the museum’s director, chose to keep it secret and carry on as if nothing had happened, according to interviews with various former trustees, employees and internal board emails obtained by The New York Times.

Almost none of the museum’s other 29 trustees were notified, even as outside attorneys were hired and began taking statements from employees at the museum, the former trustees and employees said. The investigation was “the worst secret in town — even the security guards here asked about the FBI,” recalled a museum employee who was granted anonymity because museum staff were threatened with termination if they spoke to the news media.

The exception was a trustee who oversaw the museum’s finances, and who asked about the large legal fees the museum was suddenly incurring, the former trustees said, confirming emails; he was said to be sworn to secrecy. The rest of the board only learned of the subpoena’s existence when it was mentioned in an article in The New York Times in May 2022 – three months after the Basquiat show opened.

“If we had known when we should have known, the show wouldn’t have happened,” Sharp said. “I’m a former judge and a lawyer, and I know the implications of receiving a subpoena: They think there’s probable cause that there’s fraud. Everyone would normally go ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!’”

A subsequent June meeting of the board’s executive committee, called to discuss the subpoena, only heightened the frustrations some members felt about Brumback’s secrecy. “The board is the only entity — not the chairman of the board, but the entire board — that holds the corporate franchise,” Ted Brown, a prominent local attorney and former board president who was among the recently ousted trustees, said in a interview said. “We are the responsible party for the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between at the museum. For Cynthia to keep that information from us was a breach of her responsibilities.”

Brumback did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In the opinion piece published by The Orlando Sentinel before she stepped down as chairman, she wrote that De Groft had assured “highly qualified art experts” of the authenticity of the paintings in their Basquiat exhibit, which is “Heroes and Monsters.”

“The OMA board and staff continue to feel the embarrassment of the FBI’s seizure of the works in the Heroes and Monsters exhibit and the subsequent negative attention,” she wrote. “We continue to process and grapple with the idea that something we were so happy about has become the source of malice in the museum family and our beloved community.”

Several former board members spoke of what they described as Brumback’s shifting explanations for not telling the rest of the board about the subpoena; at one meeting, Brown said, Brumback insisted that the museum’s legal counsel had encouraged her to keep it secret. He said that prompted one of the museum’s outside attorneys to remark: “I want to make it clear, we did not advise not to tell the other trustees.”

That meeting ended with the decision to close the Basquiat show a year early, on June 30. But on June 24, the FBI raided the museum and seized the paintings from its walls.

In an affidavit filed to secure the search warrant, an FBI agent provided evidence that the collection’s origin story, as described by its owners and the museum, was false, noting that there was reason to doubting the authenticity of the works of art. , which points to one painted on a piece of FedEx cardboard with custom typeface that wasn’t used until after Basquiat’s death. (In a recent interview, De Groft maintained that he still has “absolutely no doubt” that the paintings are authentic.)

Since then, as the museum has made international headlines and grappled with donor attrition, some trustees have begun to argue that Brumback, who worked with a crisis communications firm, needed to be more transparent to rebuild trust. Trustees aligned with Brown and Sharp chose to apologize to both the community and the museum’s staff — several of whom expressed concern about the authenticity of the Basquiat paintings before the show opened, only to face threats of dismissal face if they highlight the issue.

The situation came to a head last week after Brumback’s op-ed. Several trustees were upset that Brumback appeared to accept no responsibility, and worried that her piece implied that the entire board had been made aware of the subpoena. Some were also unhappy that she did not share the opinion with the board before publication. Brumback later emailed a critic on the board that she thought the piece would “help rebuild OMA.”

Some trustees felt it did the opposite. By August 22, five of them – including Brown and Sharp – had decided to call a special board meeting to be held on Friday, concerned about the drain on the museum’s budget by lawyers and publicists, as well as the danger of prominent donors fleeing.

Brown said that the meeting’s agenda was clear: “I’m going to say to the chairman, ‘Look, you have to tender your resignation and explain that you made the decision on your own to prevent us from having information. And you were wrong to do that.’” He said if she had taken responsibility, the board might have given her another term.

Instead, his own tenure on the board was cut short. On Tuesday afternoon, Brown, along with Sharp and three other trustees, received a terse email: The board’s bylaws have been consulted and all five have exceeded the board’s term limit. They were thanked for their volunteer service as trustees — 30 years’ worth in the case of Carolyn Fennell, an executive at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority — and told they were being removed from the board immediately. The Friday meeting has been cancelled.

Sharp said she and several other term-limited trustees had previously been asked to stay on and help guide the museum through its ongoing crisis. “We have continually asked the chairman to make a full, fair and honest statement of what really happened here,” Sharp said. “We begged her to do it! It took a lot for me to say we have no choice but to call this meeting.” With a sigh, she added, “It’s clear that the people who didn’t want to hold this meeting didn’t want to face the issues we were trying to raise.”

In the end there was a meeting on Friday, without the evicted councillors. Brumback stepped down as chairman but remained on the board. She was succeeded by Mark Elliott, whom several trustees considered a close ally of hers. A news release noted that Brumback would “cooperate” with Elliott, the new chairman. He said in the release that “we have our work cut out for us” and added that his duties include “focusing on good management and the museum’s practices and procedures.”

One of his first tasks will be to find a new museum director. Last Wednesday, after the trustees’ ouster, Whitlock, the museum’s interim director, who appeared sympathetic to some of their concerns in internal emails, resigned.

“I love the museum, I want to see it do well,” Whitlock, who led the museum temporarily during a previous turnaround, said in an interview. “But it is clear that I was not satisfied with certain things by resigning.”

His cracking voice concluded, “And that’s all I can tell you.”


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