Orlando museum’s Basquiat art scandal raises trust issue

On a recent visit to Orlando Museum of Art, the gallery where alleged paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat once hung, was dark. It’s a rare quiet spot amidst the hustle and bustle of Orlando’s vibrant art scene – with Snap! the opening of a new exhibit celebrating Florida photographers, the new 32789 gallery in Winter Park next month, the Downtown Arts District’s ‘Art After Dark’ party happening this weekend, and plans to expand in course for not one but two top institutions: the Mennello Museum of American Art and Rollins Museum of Art.

With all the good news, it’s easy to dismiss as an anomaly the scandal that engulfed the Orlando art museum after the FBI seized paintings claimed to be authentic Basquiats in a long-running investigation. term on the works.

But angry comments on Facebook, calls for an apology from museum management, a public mural poking fun at the situation, even the resignation of a longtime OMA volunteer – all are signs of cracks in the trust that exists between the museum and the community.

Trust is a fundamental — and essential — part of the museum-audience relationship, says Ena Heller, director of the Rollins Museum of Art in Winter Park. And study after study backs it up.

“Museums were built and survived because they were recognized, accepted, and seen as a place of authority,” Heller said. “When people walk through the door, they know they’re seeing the real deal. It’s the trust that’s been eroded by what’s happened.

A 2021 study by the US National Alliance of Museums found that museums ranked second after family and friends as highly trustworthy – scoring significantly higher in a survey than news outlets. , government and business.

Time will tell if the ill-fated Orlando Museum of Art exhibit, which came months after museum management learned that the FBI was investigating the works, will harm the perception of museums here in the long run.

Other museum officials point out that a blot on the Orlando art scene, no matter how high-profile, does not accurately reflect the extensive work being done in central Florida institutions.

“By definition, we are scholars,” said Shannon Fitzgerald, director of the Mennello City Museum. “That’s where we start. This is the rewarding part. We really want to make sure that our shows have an educational component.

Professional affiliations, such as the American Alliance for Museums, can help with research. The Orlando Art Museum was last accredited by the alliance in 2011. The alliance has not confirmed whether that accreditation, usually for a 10-year term, is still in effect.

“We are monitoring the situation, but our policy is not to speak about the specific circumstances of any particular museum, or an active FBI investigation,” a spokesperson for the alliance wrote in an email. The museum has not commented on this article, but the accreditation lists published for 2020, 2021 and 2022 make no mention of the OMA.

Doing due diligence is key to maintaining trust, Fitzgerald said. The Mennello has a history of donations, dating back to its original collection of Earl Cunningham paintings obtained by Marilyn Mennello.

“That’s how this museum was built,” Fitzgerald said, pointing out that Mennello was actively involved in determining the value of the Cunninghams.

“She knew what she had seen,” Fitzgerald said, “and then she went to the experts and they saw it.”

Today, if someone wants to donate a work of art, they must first do their homework.

“They have to have the documents, they have to get an assessment,” Fitzgerald said.

Like the public, museum leaders followed events at the OMA – with an eye to their own proceedings.

“We have conversations, of course,” Fitzgerald said.

“We really thought about authentic stories internally,” said Danielle Thomas, Executive Director of Art and History Museums – Maitland.

For an upcoming exhibit on Florida’s native tribes, the museum first consulted with an academic expert from Seminole State College, then went further.

“We have all of the texts being reviewed by the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum,” the official museum of the Seminole Nation located on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in South Florida, Thomas said. “We’re working really closely with experts on the subject.”

Museums also maintain trust by staying true to their values.

“It all comes back to the mission – does it serve the mission?” said Fitzgerald.

The internal work between those who create the art and those who exhibit it also plays a role.

“That curator-artist relationship is crucial,” Thomas said. “That’s where that trust is built.”

And staff expertise can also prevent potential problems.

“I think listening to your staff, creating an environment where everyone can share their feedback – that’s how institutions can verify themselves,” Thomas said. “You have to commit to listening to everyone without ego. Is management confident enough to listen to difficult feedback. Look at your checks and balances for any blind spots you may have.

Working with living artists, featured in many A&H exhibitions, eliminates problems of origin.

“We definitely have it easier,” Thomas said. “There is no question of provenance.”

As a museum becomes an expert on a specific subject, it enjoys a greater level of trust.

The Mennello is Cunningham’s expert, as the Morse Museum in Winter Park is the world’s authority on glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Albin Polasek Museum is the expert on the sculptor for whom he is named, and museums of art and history are the essential source of information on J. André Smith, who founded his Maitland Art Center.

But Heller worries that the expertise may not necessarily stop the damage caused by the Orlando Museum of Art scandal.

“What happened at the OMA hurts us all,” she said. “When a museum’s reputation suffers, by extension, the reputation of all museums suffers. It’s bigger than a museum.

There are, of course, steps that can restore trust, whether in a romantic or business relationship.

psychology today lists seven ways to repair a damaged reputation – including listening to anger, empathizing with those hurt, taking action to prevent the damaging incident from happening again, taking responsibility, apologizing and being reliability through transparent communication.

Critics of the Orlando Museum of Art’s response to the discredited exhibit point out that, as far as the public knows, none of these steps happened.

The OMA hired Luder Whitlock as interim executive director in July after firing Aaron De Groft, who had championed Basquiat’s alleged work. Whitlock’s first public message, sent in a mass email, did not address this situation.

Instead, the brief message contained vague statements such as “The hardships of the past seem to be behind us, and we have returned to our mission” and “Now our future looks healthy again.”

The message also acknowledged that the board was “committed to strengthening all aspects of governance” without providing any details.

For Heller, that was not enough. She thinks the institution owes the community an apology.

“You have to take responsibility for failing the public’s trust,” she said, “because otherwise they won’t give it back to you.”

Matt Giles, a longtime volunteer at the Orlando Museum of Art, agrees. Officer of the Acquisition Trust of OMA, he resigned from his position “with a heavy heart”.

“Truly repairing the damage you have all collectively done to the museum requires sincere acknowledgment of all issues, accountability for errors in judgment and leadership, and deep empathy for the reckless mismanagement of our community’s trust,” said he wrote in his resignation letter, provided to the Orlando Sentinel. “OMA urgently needs new energy, new perspectives, and most importantly, integrity that our community can believe in. Announce it to the community. Earn our trust.

For weeks, requests for comment from the OMA were forwarded to Tucker Hall, a crisis management public relations firm in Tampa. The firm did not respond to multiple emails from the Orlando Sentinel.

Heller thinks staying silent and playing a waiting game is a mistake.

“It’s not a problem that can go away over time; it needs to be addressed,” she said. “I fear that this erosion of public trust will continue. More and more people in the community will say that the museum, and all museums, are not inherently trustworthy.

She has already seen a shift in public perception.

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“I hear people in the community being angry, I hear people being hurt,” she said. “I think it’s the silence that kills everyone. The crisis will not be over until it is managed.

As the new season for the arts begins this fall, Heller and other museum directors hope the public won’t lose faith and remember all the good local institutions.

“We never did anything for the public to question us,” Heller said.

“I think there’s a public responsibility and trust, based on our work,” Fitzgerald said, adding that museum professionals are an integral part of the community. “We live in Orlando and we love Orlando.”

Thomas also expressed hope that the public would see a bigger picture.

“It’s always difficult to watch other organizations go through tough times,” Thomas said. “The best individual organizations can do in response is to look at our own internal procedures and focus on our own good work. Hopefully this will speak louder to the public and maintain that trust. »

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts, facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or write to me at [email protected]. Want more theater and arts news and reviews? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts.

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