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Art

Orlando Museum of Art director sacked following FBI raids Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition

The director of the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA), Aaron De Groft, has been sacked in the midst of a scandal pertaining to issues of authenticity and reports of ‘inappropriate correspondence’. 

Members of the board of trustees at OMA fired the institution’s director and chief executive, Aaron De Groft, on Tuesday after the FBI raided the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition and seized 25 paintings amid concerns over their authenticity. 

In a statement, OMA board chair Cynthia Brumback said the trustees are “extremely concerned about several issues with regard to the [Basquiat] exhibition, including the recent revelation of an inappropriate email correspondence sent to academia concerning the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition”.

She added, “We have launched an official process to address these matters, as they are inconsistent with the values of this institution, our business standards, and our standards of conduct.”

The email correspondence in question was submitted to the FBI to compound their appeal for a search warrant. In one of the emails, De Groft threatened an academic (subsequently identified as University of Maryland art historian Jordana Moore Saggese) who was seeking to distance herself from a report she was commissioned to write to determine the authenticity of the works in Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection

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After Saggese, who was allegedly paid $60,000 for her report, requested that her name not be tied to the exhibition, De Groft wrote, “You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this? Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou.” He added, “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”

Concerns over the authenticity of the supposed Basquait artworks in Heroes & Monsters were first released to the public in a New York Times article in February 2022. For the report, De Groft stated: “My reputation is at stake as well… And I’ve absolutely no doubt these are Basquiats.”

De Groft had been appointed to direct the OMA in February 2021, following a 14-year term as the 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 in Florida.

In a new statement, Brumback asserted that future operations would be impacted by De Groft’s actions, noting that “we are making some new decisions with regard to upcoming exhibitions and will announce those plans at a later time”.

For now, the OMA’s chief financial officer Joann Walfish will serve as the museum’s interim director. Watch interview footage of De Groft’s initial response to scepticism four months ago below.