Art of Deception

How the Cleveland Museum of Art's leadership painted itself into a corner in the David Franklin affair.

Some years ago, Baldwin Wallace University was embarrassed by newspaper accounts that revealed a Rembrandt painting it obtained was a forgery. An unscrupulous art collector had victimized the school. I spent nearly a year tracing the provenance of the painting and broke the story for The Plain Dealer.

Later, I learned that the newspaper's tip about the forgery came from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I found it peculiar that museum officials did not do the honorable thing and privately tell the university of the forgery. There seemed to be something devious in the museum's behavior.

Neophytes who venture into the art world often find a surprising atmosphere of silence and duplicity. Whether it is the secrecy that surrounds the acquisition of priceless objets d'art or the pomposity of scholarship, it is often difficult to get a straight answer about many things in this strange environment.

That thought occurred to me when a scandal broke at the museum in October. The forced resignation of the museum's director, David Franklin, tested the credibility of nearly everyone involved. No single event in recent times better symbolizes Cleveland's lack of strong civic leadership.

The museum tried to conceal Franklin's affair with an employee who later committed suicide. The way museum officials handled the situation was a microcosm of how poorly the insiders who run the town's cultural and civic ventures treat transparency and responsibility. The culture of Cleveland's elite, populated mostly by moneyed far East Siders who like to dabble in the arts and dine at country clubs, is a crucible for bad decisions, self-serving actions and egotistical attempts to shape destiny.

All of this played a role in the Franklin affair.

The board's primary duty is to protect the reputation of the museum. It still needed to raise $94 million to complete payment for its ambitious $350 million expansion, including the stunning atrium that opened in 2012. Equally important, it needed to stem the turnover in the director's position. Franklin was the third director since 2000, buttressed by three other interim directors.

There was a need for dignity where the tragic death of his lover was concerned. But Franklin needed to be dismissed: He had lied about the affair and become a liability to the institution. This ought to have been achieved in a way that minimalized injury to the museum.

Yet in dealing with Franklin's indiscretions, the board added its own. It attempted to cloak Franklin's departure with a feeble cover-up. August Napoli Jr., the museum's deputy director, called The Plain Dealer's Steven Litt to deliver the news that Franklin had resigned for "personal reasons."

That wording had the effect of spilling gasoline on glowing embers. It created a firestorm of speculation. Napoli, a well-traveled executive in the city's nonprofit world, had witnessed crisis situations when he worked at the Cleveland State University Foundation and Catholic Charities. He should have been able to better advise the board.

The board was naive on two counts: It thought it could control the media with a vague announcement and a rousing story that the museum was in good hands and moving forward. It also failed to understand how many of its employees knew about Franklin's activities. Perhaps the pedigree of its trustees, many of whom exist in a more gentle world, enabled that failure. The museum's relationship with the media, which is almost always polite, may have enabled it too.

Since Litt had an almost avuncular relationship with museum personnel, the institution apparently felt comfortable floating the obfuscated story with him, and the journalist complied. Normally, an announcement of this nature would receive a more challenging reaction from editors.

The museum lost control of the story almost immediately. Scene quickly reported online that Franklin resigned because of his affair with a former employee. Only after that revelation did R. Steven Kestner, executive partner at BakerHostetler and chairman of the museum board, come forward with the truth. In the meantime, he had discredited Litt and himself with this sleight of hand.

Kestner said he had confronted Franklin in January 2013, and Franklin had denied he'd had an affair with Christina Gaston while she worked at the museum in 2012. It wasn't until this past fall, according to Kestner, that trustees confirmed the affair. The timing of that discovery may have coincided with Gaston's family asking the police to investigate her suicide.

Franklin, hired in 2010, came with a troubled past. He'd been involved in a messy legal battle at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Kestner led the search committee, and now questions are being raised about the decision to hire Franklin.

The latest situation raised a number of questions about the museum's leaders. Did they understand the discontent toward Franklin among museum employees? Did they understand the significance of Franklin's firing to the community? Why didn't they hire a media crisis consultant? They seemed puzzled by the crisis, though rumors of the affair were rampant for months before the scandal broke.

If the scandal had taken place in government or many workplaces, those responsible for allowing the situation to rupture would be asked to resign. The museum board should examine its own conduct in this matter and take appropriate action, for the morale of employees and responsibility in fundraising.

In 2002, an irate Peter B. Lewis, who built Progressive Insurance into a Fortune 500 company, wrote to me with a piercing critique of the city's establishment. Lewis, who passed away in November, had donated millions of dollars to Cleveland institutions. He argued that lawyers and businessmen involved with civic endeavors were not great thinkers. This insular network of well-intentioned civic leaders tried to create a consensus of what they thought was good for the community. The problem is that they were out of touch. They spent more time trying to please each other than making the city and its institutions better.

Not much has changed in 12 years. Our civic leadership has been unable to develop projects such as the lakefront. It created a Medical Mart that did not work but metamorphosed into something called the Global Center for Health Innovation.

The Plain Dealer would do well to examine its journalistic practices. It should have challenged the museum from the beginning, rather than blithely castigating the museum as it did in a later editorial.

Yet nobody is more out of touch than the museum leadership — which must be replaced if the institution is going to regain its credibility.

Share this story: