Members of the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) board of trustees fired the institution’s director and chief executive, Aaron De Groft, on June 28 amid a scandal over an exhibition by Jean -Michel Basquiat at the museum which ended abruptly on June 24. when the FBI raided it and seized 25 paintings amid questions about their authenticity.
In a statement, OMA board chair Cynthia Brumback said trustees were “extremely concerned about several issues regarding the [Basquiat] exhibition, including the recent revelation of inappropriate email correspondence sent to academia regarding the authentication of some of the artworks in the exhibition”. Brumback adds, “We have initiated a formal process to address these issues, as they are inconsistent with the values of this institution, our business standards and our standards of conduct.”
The email correspondence in question was included in an affidavit filed to secure the FBI search warrant, and was cited by the New York Times. In an email, De Groft threatened an academic (later identified as University of Maryland art historian Jordana Moore Saggese) who sought to distance herself from a report she had been tasked with. write to assess the authenticity of works in Heroes and Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection. After Saggese, who was reportedly paid $60,000 for her report, requested that her name not be linked to the exhibit, De Groft wrote, “You want us to say it, you have $60,000 to write this ? So okay. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than you. He added: “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”
Concerns about the authenticity of Basquiat’s purported works in heroes and monsters were first made public in a New York Times article in February. At the time, De Groft told the newspaper: “My reputation is also at stake… And I have absolutely no doubt that it is Basquiat.”
De Groft was named head of the OMA in February 2021, following a 14-year stint as head of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Prior to that, he held positions at the Ringling Museum of Art and the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, both in Florida.
In his statement, Brumback suggested that future programming will be affected by De Groft’s ousting, noting that “we are making new decisions regarding upcoming exhibitions and will announce those plans at a later date.”
OMA Chief Financial Officer Joann Walfish will serve as interim CEO.