$7 Million Repair Bill in Orlando Art Museum Challenges

Still grappling with the fallout from the Basquiat art scandal, the Orlando art museum needs at least $7 million to fix its leaky roof and outdated air conditioning and ventilation system — a situation which was not helped by Hurricane Ian.

This is just one of the challenges for the museum, as its new chairman of the board tries to maintain relationships with supporters and donors while reassuring staff members.

A former trustee has said she will end her financial support and the lender of a major exhibit is considering severing its relationship with the museum. Meanwhile, key staff have left in recent weeks or taken on new roles within the organization.

At the same time, the museum must find a new director to replace Aaron De Groft. He was fired after the FBI seized works from the museum’s ‘Heroes and Monsters’ exhibition, which De Groft had organized, to find out if the works were really by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the acclaimed contemporary artist who died in 1988.

Mark Elliott, who became chairman of the board six weeks ago, said he was ready to meet the challenges head on.

“I am determined to do my best,” he said.

The past still hangs over the museum. The results of an investigation commissioned by the board of Akerman law firm into the causes of Basquiat’s collapse have been delayed – although they should be available within weeks, Elliott said.

“We want to make sure we have a complete and substantial document,” Elliott said. “We know there is so much public interest.”

Meanwhile, the museum continues to regroup, starting at the top. Directors completed a month-long training in governance best practices at the Edyth Bush Institute for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership at Rollins College.

The director position remains vacant: Luder Whitlock, the interim director appointed after De Groft’s dismissal, resigned in August, a day before Elliott was elected chairman of the board.

“At the time, I couldn’t continue in good conscience because of governance issues,” Luder told the Orlando Sentinel. “However, I certainly wish the best for the future of the museum.”

The Orlando Museum of Art has undergone personnel changes in recent weeks.

Elliott expressed shock at Whitlock’s departure – “I think it was very surprising” – but said Joann Walfish, as interim chief operating officer, had the confidence of the board.

“She is very close to the staff and the staff seem very loyal to her,” he said.

Among recent personnel changes, former director of marketing Emilia Bourmas-Fry is now director of development, the executive in charge of fundraising for the museum. David Matteson, associate curator of education and research, has left and now works for the Rollins Museum of Art in Winter Park. Chief of Operations Stu Worobetz also left the museum; his assistant, Steven Goycochea, took on the role – and during Hurricane Ian stayed overnight to survey the damaged roof.

“It makes me sad in all the headlines and stories that the staff are being left out,” Elliott said. “It was traumatic, they work hard. These people are there every day to turn on the lights.

Winifred Sharp, a former trustee who criticized the museum’s management, was even more direct about the effect on staff.

“They were terrified,” she said. “I’m so sorry for the staff, they’ve been through so much. For me, the great staff we had was the reason we did so well.

Stu Worobetz is pictured working at the Orlando Museum of Art in April 2020. He stepped down as chief operating officer this year.

The museum’s aging roof is receiving prompt attention, Elliott said. He had fled before Hurricane Ian left a swath of flooding and other destruction in central Florida; during the storm, the museum dodged a bullet.

“We’re very lucky it’s not worse,” Bourmas-Fry said of Ian’s water damage.

“All vaults and artwork are safe and secure,” Elliott said.

The museum is exploring how to pay for roofing and air treatment work, including the possibility of grants and PACE funding, which helps make structures more energy efficient.

“There are all kinds of ways for an organization to fund projects like this,” he said.

Calming wayward donors and supporters is also on the to-do list.

The Martin Andersen-Gracia Andersen Foundation has already recovered paintings it loaned to the Orlando Museum of Art and transferred them to the Rollins Museum of Art. The foundation donated six of the works directly to the Winter Park Museum.

Brad Face, who provided the museum with an extensive collection of paintings by Belgian Post-Impressionist artist Louis Dewis, is following the situation closely.

The Dewis exhibit is no longer on view — “She’s just sitting there,” Face said — and he’s looking forward to “firming up his future.”

Face had been interested in the proposed expansion of the museum to Lake Nona – closer to the path of millions of tourists each year – but that idea seems off the table for now.

The Basquiat scandal gave him pause, but he remains attached to a central Florida location as custodian of the Dewis collection.

“I am aware of the calamity that has befallen the museum, but I am an eternal optimist,” he said. “The stain is going to be there for a long time, but the museum is going to be there longer.”

The museum’s financial backers have also been mixed in their response.

“There’s damage to fix there,” Elliott said. “We had a couple who offered to give more, we had others who said they wouldn’t give this year. I get it.”

Sharp, the former administrator, is the one who cut donations.

“I told them that because of what happened, any support my family and I have given in the past will not be forthcoming until there are new leaders,” he said. she declared.

She did not put a figure on her annual contribution, but other people with knowledge of the situation said her donations were very important to fund the museum’s educational programs.

There were also financial gains. The Orange County Arts and Culture Advisory Board will recommend that county commissioners award $155,000 to the museum at a meeting this month.

The Elinor & TW Miller Jr. Foundation has pledged $25,000 to support seniors’ access to the Festival of Trees, a major museum fundraiser organized by the Council of 101.

The Council of 101 Tree Festival, pictured in 2021, is a popular annual fundraiser for the Orlando Museum of Art.

An internal newsletter for members of the Council of 101 detailed the progress of educational programs and the Festival of Trees. The bulletin reported that 250 classes had been booked for field trips in the fall and that new initiatives were being planned.

“The corporate sponsors of the Festival of Trees are all back and most with more money than ever before,” the bulletin said. “Sponsors have already been hired for 30 trees.”

Audiences also return to the museum, Elliott said.

A recent free Family Day event was expected to attract around 200 people; more than 600 showed up.

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And United Arts of Central Florida has offered its support. Jennifer Evins, chair of the arts advocacy agency, said she was “very encouraged for the future” after a “very productive” meeting with Elliot and other museum leaders.

“They made a major mistake; they have a lot of cleaning to do and they know it,” Evins said. “But it’s the community’s museum, it’s our museum, and we need to rally around it.”

She said that in addition to United Arts’ fundraising and marketing efforts, her agency could also offer relationships and advice on best practices in nonprofit management.

While Elliott said he was encouraged by the shows of support, he knows it will take more than just a band-aid to restore the museum’s reputation.

“I’m not happy with this,” he said, adding that the newly energized administrators were ready to look at the big picture and were committed to completely overhauling the institution while creating a welcoming environment for people. guests and staff.

“What kind of culture is it? He asked. “Because something was wrong. I know we can do better. We are going to do our best to show the public that we are going to improve.

Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts, facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or write to me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. Want more theater and arts news and reviews? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts.