Opinion: 'The Orlando Museum of Art is still bogged down in a crisis of integrity'

click to enlarge Opinion: 'The Orlando Museum of Art is still bogged down in a crisis of integrity'
Photo by Macbeth Studios

To the Editor:

The fake Basquiat crisis did not end with the termination of the disgraced director, but rather has only deepened. The lack of integrity, first and foremost among the board of trustees of the museum is, to put it not so politely, an ongoing dumpster fire. Nothing says this as clearly as the fact that the board has asked an outside local law firm to conduct some kind of review of the museum. The good men and women of the board of trustees are still not aware that they failed at their one task — namely, to preserve the integrity of the museum — and so they see no need to face the consequences of their failure and resign.

Anatomy of the dumpster fire:

  • The crisis did not end when a crisis management firm was contracted. (Great decision, awful execution.)
  • The crisis did not end when Luder Whitlock was brought back. (Red flag.)
  • The crisis did not end when Luder Whitlock resigned. (Huge red flag.)
  • The crisis did not end when the now-former chair penned an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel. (Fuel on the fire.)
  • The crisis did not end when the now-former chair stepped down, yet remained on the board. (More fuel on the fire.)
  • The crisis did not end when board members Mark Elliott and Nancy Wolf were appointed to head a task force. (Inactivity in the face of crisis is fuel on the fire.)
  • The crisis did not end when board members cried that they were kept in the dark. (More fuel on the fire.)
  • The crisis did not end when board member Mark Elliott was appointed chair of the board, possibly not in accordance with the bylaws. (More fuel.)
  • The crisis did not end when newly appointed chair Mark Elliott apologized, but took no responsibility. (Is he sorry for what happened or sorry that they got caught?)

Will the Akerman law firm put an end to the crisis? Absolutely not. Because at root, the board is passing the buck of accountability, which also implies that they have their own side of the story that is not known, and this is the manner they have chosen for it to be heard so they can be exonerated.

Some additional concerns regarding the Akerman inquiry:

First of all, and most importantly, what is the scope and mandate of this inquiry? The truth will be found not in the results, but in the way the issues for review are framed. And given that there is an FBI investigation still ongoing, won't much, if not all, that is at the heart of the matter be excluded?

Will the report be made public? Immediately and completely?

Are the board members committed to accepting the results? Mr. Elliott pledged in a phone conversation with me that he would accept the findings, including his resignation, should it be called for.

What is the museum hoping to gain by such an inquiry? If the trustees had any concept of integrity, they would have resigned immediately after the FBI shut down the exhibit. This deflection is more fuel on the dumpster fire. Anything short of a recommendation that the entire board of trustees resign will be a further insult to the people of Orlando, and will certainly give the appearance of a rigged and farcical process. The former judge and board member who cried that she had no knowledge of the behind-the-scenes Basquiat drama misses the point: It doesn't matter that you didn't know; you should have known, that was your job, and your common sense should have been enough to figure it out. Not to mention the owners of the collection are convicted felons! (When I heard that the OMA was chosen to present 25 never-before-seen Basquiat works, I was skeptical. I did some research, and when multiple red flags popped up, I reached out to a known Basquiat expert and authenticator, the Basquiat Estate and Thad Mumford's sister, all of whom were most accessible.)

The museum and its board do not like criticism, and have repeatedly asked us to wait indefinitely while taking no steps, an attempt to convince us that we are "putting this behind us." The necessary response to this arrogant and continued stonewalling is public impatience and a demand for meaningful and respectable action. The severity of the required steps is in direct proportion to the enormity of the failure and disgrace. Mark Elliott, sadly, is not capable of figuring out for himself that he is not addressing the crisis. There is no need for the Akerman law firm, period, and certainly no reason to set them up as judge and jury. The way, the only way, to end a crisis of integrity is to take responsibility, personal responsibility, which in this case means to resign.

A word must be said about Luder Whitlock, the only person in this entire debacle who showed integrity. When he felt that he could not continue, that he and the board were at odds, Mr. Whitlock resigned. This was the "canary in the coal mine" moment.

Museums must maintain their integrity at all costs. This, in fact, is the reason boards of trustees exist. The fact that the board of trustees of the OMA is still unable to understand that they failed, miserably, and that they are hoping to be vindicated in some way is totally unacceptable.

A museum should see itself as an institution for the public, dedicated to serving the public good. Whom does the present board of trustees serve? The answer shown clearly, by both their own words and actions, is that they serve themselves only and are unashamed of doing so. Failure by the present board to resolve this crisis may in fact lead to the ultimate demise of the museum. We need to move on, without those who do not have the best interest of the museum at heart.

— Samuel S. Flax, Orlando