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The Orlando Museum of Art is facing financial trouble after 2022 fake Basquiat exhibit

FILE - A banner advertising an exhibit by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat hangs from the exterior of the Orlando Museum of Art, where a collection of Basquiat's paintings were on display, on June 2, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.
John Raoux
/
AP
FILE - A banner advertising an exhibit by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat hangs from the exterior of the Orlando Museum of Art, where a collection of Basquiat's paintings were on display, on June 2, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.

The Orlando Museum of Art continues to face financial l shortfalls after former Executive Director Aaron De Groft brought a series of Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings in 2022, that the FBI later determined were fake.

The Heroes and Monsters exhibit resulted in a legal battle costing the museum hundreds of thousands of dollars it had not budgeted for.

Legal Battle

After the FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art and confiscated the fake Basquiat paintings, the museum had to comply with four subpoenas seeking emails and evidence about the paintings and De Groft.

Mark Elliott, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said they formed a task force to investigate how they got here.

“The results of those findings helped to create the lawsuit and provide the details necessary for the lawsuit against Aaron De Groft and his co defendants,’ he said. “During that time, the Orlando Museum of Art had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of unbudgeted, unforeseen professional expenses in order to comply with the subpoenas.”

On January 19, 2024 the Museum released a statement saying it dismissed its claims against several defendants, except for De Groft.

Ginny Childs, an attorney for OMA, said that decision was made after the museum was served with its fourth Grand Jury subpoena.

“That was like the equivalent of a very large bill to the museum that was not reimbursed by the federal government. That was another unbudgeted and unforeseen expense. As a result of that, the decision was made to dismiss some of those defendants and pursue the one person who effectively handpicked this artwork and fast track this exhibition, which was the CEO at the time Aaron De Groft.”

Current Financial Landscape

As a result of the FBI subpoenas, Cathryn Mattson, OMA Executive Director and CEO, said the museum had an unexpected expense of 25% of their budget.

“It was more than I think any small organization could absorb quickly and come out the other side whole,” she said.

Ginny Childs, Mark Elliott, and Cathryn Mattson stand for a portrait in a conference room at Akerman LLP in Downtown Orlando.
Talia Blake
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WMFE
Ginny Childs, Mark Elliott, and Cathryn Mattson stand for a portrait in a conference room at Akerman LLP in Downtown Orlando.

Mattson said the museum now is facing a short term cash crunch.

“We have cut our operating expenses down to the bone. We have not laid off people, we have no intention to do so, but we had to really trim our operating expenses. We had to not have some exhibits that we had expected to have due to their costs.”

The Orlando Sentinel reports that the Museum was looking at a budget shortfall of up to $1 million.

OMA backs that number, but Mattson said those were projections from several months ago.

“Things change and I think part of strategy is being adaptable. So we're doing updates all the time. We've had some additional inflows since those projections were made. And we will see that number that has been quoted come down over the next several months. I'm not going to predict an absolute number because this is a process.”

The Museum is looking to make connections with local philanthropists, and leaders in county and city governments to help them out of this financial crunch.

“We’re not waiting to be rescued, but we are looking to collaborate with the leaders of this community who value what this museum does.”

Mattson said they’re already receiving help with increased personal contributions from the board and a three-year grant from the Alice Walton Art Bridges foundation.

One positive sign Mattson said is that the Museum is moving in the right direction is admissions.

“We have now exceeded preCOVID admission rates. We are expecting over 140,000 visitors this year,” she said. “Our first opening day was January the 18th and we had over 400 people come to the museum.”

Rebuilding Trust and Moving Forward

Save The Orlando Museum’, a petition on change.org, created by Orlando resident Fiorella Escalon, has more than 750 signatures.

The petition is calling for more transparency and a change in leadership at the Orlando Museum of Art.

However, Mark Elliott, Chair of the Board of Trustees at OMA, said the museum has provided the public with 300 pages of evidence through their lawsuit.

Telling the Museum’s story through those documents, is one way Elliott says it can rebuild trust with the community.

“The process of building back the museum, its reputation and trust with the community is a journey. It's not quick righting of the ship, but it's a course correction,” he said. ”One of the things that was important to the museum and the trustees was to be able to tell the facts and the story of what was uncovered through our investigation.”

One of the paintings from Orlando Museum of Art's "Heroes & Monsters" exhibit, purportedly by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982, called "Untitled (Self Portrait or Crown Face II)." This is one of 25 paintings seized from OMA by the FBI in June, 2022. The FBI says claims are false that these so-called lost Basquiat works were found by treasure hunters in the abandoned storage unit of a deceased Hollywood screenwriter. The FBI investigation is ongoing. Photo: Orlando Museum of Art
Orlando Museum of Art
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Orlando Museum of Art
One of the paintings from Orlando Museum of Art's "Heroes & Monsters" exhibit, purportedly by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982, called "Untitled (Self Portrait or Crown Face II)." This is one of 25 paintings seized from OMA by the FBI in June, 2022. The FBI says claims are false that these so-called lost Basquiat works were found by treasure hunters in the abandoned storage unit of a deceased Hollywood screenwriter. The FBI investigation is ongoing.

Apart from sharing their story, the Museum has implemented changes to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Mattson said they’re working on building a strong financial infrastructure by broadening their fundraising strategy.

There are also new bylaws and term limits for trustees, and a requirement that all trustees be certified in nonprofit governance.

But, the biggest change is in the Museum's employee handbook.

“We also provided for our staff, a comprehensive, new and updated Employee Handbook with specific provisions around how to be a whistleblower and how to raise concerns so that the proper people know and that they can take action on those concerns,” Elliott said.

After several subpoenas and a lawsuits, Elliott said lessons have been learned.

“Through a little bit of pain, I think we've learned a life lesson as a community and as an institution, that we have got to really make sure that we double check everything when things may seem too perfect.”

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to WMFE, the station that grew her love for public radio. She graduated with a double-major in Broadcast Journalism and Psychology from the University of Central Florida (Go Knights!). While at UCF, she was an intern for WMFE’s public affairs show, Intersection. In her spare time, Talia is an avid foodie and enjoys working out.
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