In a statement issued on August 19, a newly appointed task force at the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) announced that it would be “re-evaluating all exhibitions” planned by former and recently ousted director Aaron De Groft. The task force was formed with the intention of “examining oversight procedures for the review and approval of exhibitions,” a trustee said, on the heels of an FBI raid in which 25 paintings falsely posited to be made by Jean-Michel Basquiat were seized from the museum in late June.
The reforms, which will be maneuvered by reappointed Interim Director Luder Whitlock, are an anguished attempt by the disgraced museum to reestablish credibility in the aftermath of revelations that those in the highest positions of leadership were responsible for misrepresenting the authenticity of a series of works allegedly by Basquiat. In response, six key donors have withdrawn support and pledged to give instead to the Rollins Museum of Art, and the Martin Andersen-Gracia Andersen Foundation announced they would migrate a collection of 18th- and 19th-century American paintings (including ones by John Singer Sargent and Robert Henri) from the OMA to Rollins.
Although Cynthia Brumback, chairwoman of OMA’s board of trustees, announced De Groft’s removal days after the FBI raid, she has not escaped scrutiny herself: Prominent figures in Orlando’s arts communities are calling for her resignation, including Ena Heller, director of the Rollins Museum of Art, who told the New York Times, “This did not begin and end with Aaron De Groft,” adding that he “reported to a board that has oversight” and “fiduciary responsibility for that museum.”
The museum’s current crisis is the fallout of a messy, months-long saga that has largely unfolded in the public eye and began with the opening of Heroes and Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat in February this year. Most of the paintings the exhibition featured had never before been publicly seen. They had reportedly been made in 1982 — when Basquiat was just 22 years old and living in a basement studio space beneath preeminent art dealer Larry Gagosian’s home — and were said to have been sold to TV writer Thad Mumford, who then, as the story went, kept them stashed in private for three decades. They were then “discovered” by a duo of dealers who were later revealed to have both served prison time for felony drug trafficking under other names.
Almost immediately, questions surfaced about the legitimacy of the paintings. Gagosian opined that the story seemed “highly unlikely” to him. The paintings had been floating around the secondary art market for years, and a number of experts and auction houses like Sotheby’s declined to weigh in on their authenticity. Nevertheless, other credentialed art world professionals and academics verified the paintings as Basquiat’s, including a handwriting expert, a Basquiat scholar, and a curator who was an early proponent of Basquiat’s career. But the principal detail that aroused suspicion was the font on the backside of a piece of cardboard manufactured by FedEx carrying what the museum claimed was Basquiat’s work. It was a typeface that had not been used by the company prior to 1994.
Confronted with these red flags, De Groft apparently dismissed them. An FBI investigation was launched in May and a subpoena was delivered. By the end of June, the paintings were forcibly taken from the OMA, in a raid that caused a temporary shutdown of the museum. Around the time of the raid, it was also revealed that De Groft paid an expert $60,000 to authenticate the paintings; when she raised concerns about the authenticity of some of them, she was allegedly threatened and silenced, although the museum continued to cite her as an authenticator of the works on display.
Among the exhibitions that are now canceled were to be ones on Jackson Pollock and a set of drawings by Michelangelo. Suspicion has now been cast on the authenticity of works that would have been shown as part of both exhibitions. A third exhibition on Banksy, which the artist himself has denounced, has also been removed from the upcoming calendar.
“It’s not just about the Orlando Museum of Art,” Heller told the New York Times, indicating that despite the influx of philanthropic support for the Rollins Museum of Art in light of the OMA’s plight, the debacle had damaged confidence in the whole museum environment in Orlando. “It’s about our entire community. Museums operate on public trust, and now that trust has been hurt,” she continued. “This is the first time in my 30-year career that several people have come into the museum and the first thing they asked me was, ‘How do you know that art is real?’”