Op-ed: An open letter to the chairwoman of the Orlando Museum of Art Board of Trustees regarding their exhibition of fake Basquiat works

click to enlarge Orlando Museum of Art - Photo by Christopher Keith Garcia
Photo by Christopher Keith Garcia
Orlando Museum of Art

The editor of Orlando Weekly graciously offered me this opportunity to present an open letter to the chairwoman of the Orlando Museum of Art, Ms. Cynthia Brumback. Their reasoning is not so clear to me, in that other than for three years I managed an art supply store, and that was five years ago (and with whom I presently have absolutely no affiliation). Unless it is the fact that I care about the museum and the city. [Editor's note: Mr. Flax has been corresponding with us since February regarding the Heroes & Monsters exhibit; when he mentioned at the beginning of June that he had written an open letter to Ms. Brumback, I invited him to share it with us as an op-ed.]

To the point, Ms. Brumback: You, your board, your director, your curatorial staff and the museum staff have brought disgrace and shame on the museum. Not because the so-called Venice Collection may be all fakes, but because given the weak and almost nonexistent provenance, you should never have agreed to exhibit the pieces to begin with. Then to add insult to injury, when various journalists presented the full background story — something you seemingly went out of your way to avoid or never bothered to check — your response was to ignore the seriousness of the situation. Instead you quoted ticket sales and a poem as justifiable proof to continue!

Today, the museum is involved in an FBI investigation. Let me say that again: The museum is at the center of an FBI investigation. As I write this, the FBI executed a raid on the museum today (Friday). You may say that the museum and the staff are not the target of the investigation, but the FBI has made no such declaration. We all must wait and see what the results will be, but I for one see no reason to withhold judgement on you and your staff until their findings are released for these two reasons: First, the FBI is examining whether fraud has been committed, but their bottom line is whether it has occurred and that it can be proven in a court of law; the FBI may in fact have no concern as to proving that the pieces are authentic, other than to say that they cannot be proven to be fakes. And second, even should the pieces be deemed authentic, this would not vindicate the museum of the lack of judgement in agreeing to exhibit the collection; just as a broken clock is correct twice a day, the museum would still be guilty of incompetence.

IS IT ALL OVER?

Here is the tricky bit: Does anyone really care about the scandal of the Orlando Museum of Art ? The truth is that the public at large didn’t care much about the museum even before the exhibition, and certainly doesn’t care if the museum is exhibiting fakes. The local art community doesn’t seem to care about the lack of integrity either. According to reporters at both Orlando Weekly and the Orlando Sentinel, nearly everyone in the art community was afraid to go on the record. Additionally, it doesn’t seem to bother local artists, nor any of the artists who participated in this year's Florida Prize. Even the presenting sponsor, Orlando Health, does not care. Local politicians offered no opinion whatsoever, even as the name of Orlando was being dragged through the mud on a national and international scale. The local media doesn’t seem to care either, choosing, almost collectively, to frame the issue as the museum vs. the New York Times. Lastly, and most importantly to you, Ms. Chairwoman, is whether the donors care.

The Orlando Museum of Art was not a great museum, not even a very good museum, and probably not the city’s best museum. The museum also consistently loses money. All that was true before the "Basquiat" collection arrived. Today, the museum has no integrity. So, what remains? Why would any donor support such a museum? Let me be more specific: Why would an honest donor support your museum ? It is my understanding that a major donor recently showed up at the museum unannounced and demanded all artwork that was loaned be returned immediately and more importantly, the donor withdrew their sponsorship. If this is a sign of things to come, the museum is finished.

Museums experience scandals, just like any other institution, maybe even more than most. What sets the OMA apart is its foolishness in burying its head in the sand. The New York Times did not accuse nor imply that in being duped (at best) or being accomplices (at worst), we are yokels. This seems to be the elephant in the room that only locals see. In my opinion, the museum were not yokels in your stupidity to deal with criminals, but did act like yokels in deciding to do nothing to remedy the situation. Is it not true that following the Times article, the museum flew in an expert to examine the pieces, and if so, why were those findings never made public?

IT IS OVER

My position has not changed since this train wreck started, which I texted you in both February and just a few weeks ago:

  • The director and all those who were responsible must be terminated immediately
  • You must resign your position and encourage all the board members to follow your example
  • You should apologize to the people of Orlando.

There are some of us who care and hope that the museum can be rebuilt, with integrity as a cornerstone. If you are among those who care, then please do what is necessary and admit your failure before it is too late.

Samuel S. Flax

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