Complaint faults museum director for hanging his in-law's El Greco

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Complaint faults museum director for hanging his in-law's El Greco
An El Greco painting lent to the Detroit Institute of Arts, “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata,” which belongs to the museum director’s father-in-law, at a gallery in the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Mich., July 15, 2020. A whistle-blower accusation argues that conflict-of-interest rules to prevent self-dealing have been skirted at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Brittany Greeson for The New York Times.

by Graham Bowley

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It was a chance to borrow a rarely seen El Greco for a museum that had only a single painting by the old master.

So the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts courted a wealthy Dallas collector to arrange for a loan of the painting, “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata,” and it now hangs in the reopened museum’s medieval and Renaissance galleries.

That coup, however, has set off a whistleblower complaint, filed with the Internal Revenue Service and the Michigan attorney general, asserting that conflict-of-interest rules to prevent self-dealing have been skirted. The wealthy Dallas collector, it turns out, was the director’s father-in-law.

The director, Salvador Salort-Pons, said that his family’s interest in the painting was properly disclosed and that he followed a procedure approved by the institute’s board of directors for borrowing works.

“It’s a common practice for American museums to engage collectors and patrons asking them to loan paintings,” he said in an interview.

But his answers have failed to satisfy the museum employees who filed the complaint at a time when other concerns, including ones about Salort-Pons’ management style and about DIA’s treatment of its Black employees, are roiling the institute.

They say that a lack of transparency surrounding the artwork cloaked a situation that could financially benefit the director and his family, since a painting’s exhibition in the institute could burnish its value.

Some ethics experts, too, said he probably didn’t go far enough in disclosing his family’s interest.

“A museum official (or close relative) who loans an object to the museum for display then sells it after exhibition would likely earn an enhanced price for the object,” said Greg Stevens, director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University. “And it would also cause the appearance of impropriety to arise — namely, that the museum used its prestige, resources, and reach to enrich the official.”

The institute said it had engaged a Washington law firm to review the museum’s loan procedures and policies to ensure that they had been followed.

The bonds between museums and wealthy collectors is one of the essential relationships of American museums. Without the generosity of such patrons museums could likely not afford the art that enhances the visitor experience.

So, museums routinely engage in all manner of relationship-building they hope will lead to collectors gifting money or major works. Salort-Pons said that was his ultimate goal when he implored the collector, Alan M. May, a retired real estate investor, to lend the El Greco.

The late-16th-century painting, valued at $5 million in the museum’s internal database, shows the young saint standing alone in a wild landscape.

Praising its “dynamic image of ecstasy,” Salort-Pons said the work surpasses in quality the institute’s existing El Greco, “Madonna and Child,” which was donated in 1970 by a Detroit collector. (Damaged by a repaint, it has not been exhibited for decades.)

“When I heard that he bought this painting, I called him and said you need to lend this to the DIA because it’s an amazing painting,” he said.

In the case of the St. Francis painting, both May and Salort-Pons informed the institute’s chairman, Eugene A. Gargaro, about the plan to lend it to the institute, and Gargaro approved the loan. “If it’s disclosed to me, then it’s disclosed to the whole board,” Gargaro said in an interview.

The work was also listed in the usual loan agreement issued for incoming works of art and was known to a circle of staff members who deal with borrowed artworks, Salort-Pons said.

The El Greco was the second painting he had borrowed from his father-in-law.

In 2010, Salort-Pons borrowed a 17th-century painting valued at $500,000, “An Allegory of Autumn,” attributed to the circle of French artist Nicolas Poussin. It was a painting that would help explain Poussin’s influence; Salort-Pons, who was then a curator, said he sought the approval of Graham Beal, who was the director at the time.

Beal said in an email that the loans of such paintings to the institute’s galleries represented “a hole that the curator in charge hoped the loan might fill permanently in the fullness of time.”

“The loan(s) from Alan May was/were totally above board and benefited the DIA as much, if not more, than the lender,” Beal said.

The institute’s own guidelines say that family loans can benefit the museum but “exhibition can enhance the value of the exhibited object and care should be used to achieve objectivity in such cases.” Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit law firm in Washington representing the staff members, said Salort-Pons did not take nearly enough care.

He should have recused himself completely, and have formally informed the entire board as well as the public about any family interest.

This squares with what some ethics experts believe. Ideally, museum experts say, if a work is borrowed from a family member, the director should also justify why the work is joining the museum’s collection.

Whistleblower Aid said Salort-Pons ran afoul of these guidelines because the paintings are owned by a family trust and his wife is a beneficiary.

“At best, Salort-Pons exercised poor judgment by entering into an opaque arrangement that financially benefits his father-in-law and wife,” said John N. Tye, founder of Whistleblower Aid, which has previously worked on high-profile cases including the whistleblower complaint about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. He declined to say how many institute staff members were involved in the complaint.

May and Salort-Pons declined to comment about the trust.

Salort-Pons acknowledged that including the work of, say, a young contemporary artist on the institute’s walls would likely boost that work’s value. But he questioned whether that held for paintings by established names like El Greco.

The Spanish-born Salort-Pons, 50, joined the institute in 2008 and became director seven years later, after a turbulent period when the institute was saved by the infusion of nearly $1 billion from foundations, private donors and the state of Michigan. A deal for an annual property tax increase paid by three Michigan counties continues to support its annual $38 million operating budget.

Five years into his directorship, the issues with the paintings are part of a larger pattern of dissatisfaction with Salort-Pons’ leadership, according to several current and former staff members.

The broader complaints describe a less-than-collaborative management style, sidelining of senior staff members, and frustration that Salort-Pons is undermining the institute’s emphasis on community outreach and education for which it prides itself.

They also complain about a certain deafness on race at a time when questions about systemic racism are coursing through the country’s cultural institutions.

In June, Andrea Montiel de Shuman quit as digital experience designer, complaining in an online essay of “a contradictory, hostile, at times vicious and chaotic work environment” that censors the work of people of color and neglects Black communities.

Two assistant curators, both Black women, who were hired for the contemporary art department in 2016 as part of an effort to expand diversity, left within two years.

One of the curators, Taylor Renee Aldridge, said in an email that her situation “is emblematic of many abuses and systemic violences that permeate from the top down in museums, and especially the DIA.”

The institute declined to comment on individual personnel matters. Salort-Pons conceded that his European background meant that initially he had had a limited understanding of the Black struggle in America but was taking steps to improve diversity. “I came with privilege,” he said. “I am aware of that right now and I understand it.”

Those steps include a new paid internship program and hiring a new consultant to advise on diversity and access.

He also defended his support for African American art and said a vote in March in favor of renewing the property tax earmarked for the museum was a strong show of community approval for his achievements.

His tenure in Detroit has coincided with May’s growing involvement. May became a member of the institute in 2009, and has since become an involved presence, traveling with curators to art world events — a perk often extended to important collectors.

He said that he believed his loans were handled properly.

“As a philanthropist, I can assure you that my sole motivation was to enrich the museum experience to its visitors and to help provide learning opportunities for students and art lovers,” he said.

He has donated conservation equipment to the institute and has given paintings to other museums like the Dallas Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But he has yet to donate a work to DIA, though he said he may donate a painting from his collection in the future.

The painting attributed to the circle of Poussin stayed at the institute until 2012, and has now returned to its owner. Salort-Pons said he was encouraging his father-in-law to keep the St. Francis painting at the institute for much longer.

“I would like it to stay forever,” he said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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