Art director

Orlando Art Museum director absent after FBI Basquiat raid – Orlando Sentinel

Aaron De Groft has been replaced as director and CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art, the organization announced Tuesday evening, amid fallout from questions about the authenticity of paintings by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and a FBI raid on the museum last week.

“Effective today, Aaron De Groft is no longer Director and CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art,” Cynthia Brumback, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, said in a statement emailed to the Orlando Sentinels. “Joann Walfish, a long-time employee who served as Chief Financial Officer, has been named interim Chief Operating Officer and will lead the organization through this transition.”

The statement did not specify whether De Groft was fired or resigned.

In May, it was reported that the FBI’s Art Crime team was investigating the authenticity of 25 paintings in the Orlando museum’s “Heroes & Monsters” exhibit, claimed to be by Basquiat. The unpublished paintings were reportedly recovered from a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012, some 24 years after Basquiat’s death. If real, they could be worth $100 million or more, experts say.

Officers raided the museum on Friday, seizing the 25 paintings attributed to Basquiat. The affidavit of FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas said that “the agency’s investigation revealed attempts to sell the paintings using false provenance, and bank records show possible solicitation of investments. in works of art that are not authentic”.

De Groft was on vacation when the raid took place, according to a museum spokeswoman, and did not comment on the FBI’s actions.

The search warrant application lists two possible crimes: conspiracy and electronic fraud. Selling art known to be fake is a federal offense.

Rivas’ affidavit said De Groft pressured an expert hired to authenticate the paintings to remain silent after expressing concerns about his name being attached to the Orlando exhibit, urging him in an email to stay within his “limited lane”.

Jordana Moore Saggese, an art professor at the University of Maryland who has written a book on Basquiat, confirmed in an email to the Orlando Sentinel that she is the expert referenced in the affidavit. She wrote that she was cooperating with investigators and felt “intimidated, harassed [and] insult.”

“The Orlando Museum of Art Board of Trustees is extremely concerned about several issues regarding the [Basquiat] “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition, including the recent exposure of inappropriate email correspondence sent to academia regarding the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition,” Brumback said.

“We have initiated a formal process to address these issues because they are inconsistent with the values ​​of this institution, our business standards and our standards of conduct,” Brumback said. “In addition, we are making new decisions regarding upcoming exhibitions and will announce these plans later.”

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Even though speculation about the authenticity of the art began almost immediately after the exhibition opened in February, De Groft remained adamant in his defense of the works.

In several press articles, he defended the exhibition, calling the 25 works “masterpieces” and insisting that there was “absolutely no doubt” that the art was genuine.

De Groft boasted an impressive resume when hired – with more than two decades of museum management experience, he had spent the past 14 years as director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

He also had connections to Florida, having served for 10 years as assistant director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota and former chief curator of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville.

He took the top job at the Orlando Museum of Art in February 2021.

“We appreciate the support of our staff, volunteers, donors, sponsors, friends, partners and guests and want to assure them that this institution remains fully committed to the mission, values ​​and standards of conduct and practice on which the museum is based. Orlando art was built. in its nearly 100-year history,” Brumback said.

Writer Skyler Swisher contributed to this report.