The Orlando Museum of Art’s (OMA) interim director resigned on Wednesday, August 24, followed by the chair of the board of trustees two days later, in the continued fallout from a scandal at the museum that culminated in the FBI’s seizure of 25 likely forged works purported to be by Jean-Michel Basquiat in late June.
Former interim director Luder Whitlock left his post just over a week after being announced as the provisional leader. “We want to put the past behind us,” Whitlock said in a statement shortly after replacing Aaron De Groft.
De Groft was a key player in organizing the exhibition in question, Heroes and Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, ignoring unmissable red flags raised about the authenticity of the paintings and silencing and threatening dissenting voices. He was fired four days after the FBI raid on June 24. A former director of the CNL Charitable Foundation — a grantmaking institution that supports Central Florida non-profits — Whitlock also previously served as interim director at the OMA between 2020 and 2021, when he was brought in to stabilize the museum’s course following the turbulent leadership of Glen Gentele, who had been accused of fostering a “toxic culture.” Whitlock’s return to the museum was thought to indicate a return to measured leadership, and his quick exit suggests that the museum’s attempt to rebuild credibility will be a difficult one.
On August 26, Mark Elliott replaced Cynthia Brumback as chair of the board of trustees. Several key figures in Orlando’s art community called for Brumback’s resignation in the aftermath of the Basquiat scandal, alleging that she played an important role in enabling De Groft. Elliott, who has also been appointed to lead a task force to review museum exhibitions and policies, said in a statement that he looked forward to “working straightaway on taking steps with our Board to guide the museum towards fulfilling its highest and best purpose, expanding our permanent collection, focusing on good governance and the Museum’s practices and procedures.”
A reevaluation of the museum’s practices extending to the highest levels of leadership is direly needed. Three upcoming exhibitions that were organized by De Groft have now been canceled. Critics argue that leaders were given more than fair warning about issues pertinent to Heroes and Monsters headed the OMA’s way; the first FBI subpoena was issued to the museum in July 2021, more than half a year in advance of the exhibition’s opening date.
Brumback said in a statement that she will work closely with Elliott as he transitions into his new position as board chair, adding, “regardless of the events in our recent history, we have deep roots in the community and much to be proud of.” She will also continue to work with the museum on fundraising. The OMA says that it is now consulting with an independent recruiting firm in search of its next director.