It was an opportunity to borrow a rarely seen El Greco for a museum that only had a single painting by the old master.
So the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts wooed a wealthy Dallas collector for a loan of the painting “St. Francis Receives the Stigmata “and now hangs in the medieval and renaissance galleries of the reopened museum.
However, that coup sparked a whistleblower complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service and the Michigan Attorney General alleging that conflict of interest rules were circumvented to prevent proprietary business. It turned out that the wealthy Dallas collector was the director’s father-in-law.
The director, Salvador Salort-Pons, said his family’s interest in the painting had been duly disclosed and that he had followed a work loan procedure approved by the institute’s board of directors.
“It is a common practice for American museums to get collectors and patrons to ask them to borrow paintings,” he said in an interview.
But his responses failed to satisfy the museum staff who filed the complaint at a time when other concerns, including Mr Salort-Pons’ leadership style and the DIA’s treatment of black workers, were stirring up the institute.
They say that lack of transparency of the artwork obscured a situation that the director and his family could benefit financially from, as exhibiting a painting at the institute could sprout its value.
Some ethics experts also said he probably didn’t go far enough to reveal his family’s interests.
“A museum official (or close relative) who lends an item to the museum for display and then sells it after it is displayed would likely get a higher price for the item,” said Greg Stevens, director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University . “And it would also create the appearance of inappropriateness – namely, that the museum used its prestige, resources and reach to enrich the officer.”
The institute said it hired a Washington law firm to review the museum’s loan procedures and guidelines to ensure they were being followed.
The relationship between museums and wealthy collectors is one of the essential relationships of American museums. Without the generosity of such patrons, museums probably couldn’t afford the art that enhances the visitor experience.
Hence, museums routinely engage in all kinds of relationship building that they hope will lead to collectors giving away money or significant work. Mr Salort-Pons said this was his ultimate goal when he begged collector Alan M. May, a retired real estate investor, to loan the El Greco.
Valued at $ 5 million in the museum’s internal database, the late 16th-century painting depicts the young saint alone in a wild landscape.
Salort-Pons praised its “dynamic image of ecstasy” and said the work surpassed the quality of the institute’s existing El Greco, “Madonna and Child,” donated in 1970 by a Detroit collector. (Damaged by repainting, it has not been on display for decades.)
“When I heard he bought this painting, I called him and said you had to loan it to DIA because it was an amazing painting,” he said.
In the case of the St. Francis painting, both Mr. May and Mr. Salort-Pons informed the chairman of the institute, Eugene A. Gargaro, of the plan to loan it to the institute, and Mr. Gargaro approved the loan. “If it is disclosed to me, it will be communicated to the entire board,” Gargaro said in an interview.
The work is also listed in the usual loan agreement for incoming works of art and is known to a group of employees who deal with loaned works of art, said Salort-Pons.
The El Greco was the second painting he had borrowed from his father-in-law.
In 2010, Mr. Salort-Pons borrowed a 17th century painting valued at US $ 500,000, “An Allegory of Autumn,” attributed to the circle of French artist Nicolas Poussin. It was a painting that would explain Poussin’s influence; Mr Salort-Pons, who was the curator at the time, said he had obtained approval from Graham Beal, who was the director at the time.
Mr Beal said in an email that loans of such paintings to the institute’s galleries “represented a void that the curator in charge hoped the loan could fill all the time”.
“Alan May’s loan (s) was / are perfectly fine and benefiting the DIA as much, if not more, than the lender,” said Mr Beal.
The institute’s own guidelines state that family loans can benefit the museum, but “Exhibitions can add value to the object on display and in such cases objectivity should be observed”. Whistleblower Aid, a Washington nonprofit law firm that represents its employees, said Mr. Salort-Pons did not do nearly enough due diligence.
He should have withdrawn completely and formally informed the entire board and the public of any family interests.
This is in line with what some ethics experts believe. Ideally, museum experts say, when a work is loaned from a family member, the director should also explain why the work is included in the museum’s collection.
Whistleblower Aid said Mr Salort-Pons violated these guidelines because the paintings were owned by a family business and his wife was a beneficiary.
“Salort-Pons has exercised poor judgment at best, entering into an opaque arrangement that benefits his father-in-law and wife financially,” said John N. Tye, founder of Whistleblower Aid, who previously worked on high profile cases, including the whistleblower complaint about President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. He did not want to say how many employees of the institute were involved in the complaint.
Mr May and Mr Salort-Pons declined to comment on the trust.
Mr. Salort-Pons acknowledged that including the work of a young contemporary artist on the walls of the institute would likely add to the value of that work. But he wondered if this was true of paintings by established names like El Greco.
Born in Spain, Salort-Pons, 50, joined the institute in 2008 and became director seven years later, after a turbulent period during which the institute was saved by the institute Almost a billion dollars infused from foundations, private donors, and the state of Michigan. A Deal for an annual property tax hike Paid by three Michigan counties continues to support its annual operating budget of $ 38 million.
After five years as director, the problems with the paintings are part of a larger pattern of dissatisfaction with Mr. Salort-Pons’s leadership, according to several current and former employees.
The broader complaints describe a less cooperative management style, the rejection of senior staff, and the frustration that Mr. Salort-Pons is undermining the institute’s emphasis on public relations and education, of which it prides itself.
They also complain of a certain racial deafness at a time when questions about systemic racism are circulating through the country’s cultural institutions.
In June, Andrea Montiel de Shuman resigned as a digital experience designer and complained in an online essay of “a contradicting, hostile, sometimes vicious and chaotic work environment” that censors the work of colored people and neglects black communities.
Two assistant curators, both black women, who were hired in 2016 for the contemporary art department to expand the diversity, left within two years.
One of the curators, Taylor Renee Aldridge, said in an email that her situation is “symbolic of many abuses and systemic violence that pervade museums, and the DIA in particular, from top to bottom.”
The institute did not want to comment on individual personnel matters. Mr Salort-Pons acknowledged that due to his European background, he initially had a limited understanding of the struggle of blacks in America but took steps to improve diversity. “I came with privilege,” he said. “I am aware of that now and I understand it.”
These steps include a new paid internship program and hiring a new advisor to advise you on diversity and access.
He also defended his support for African American art, saying a March vote to renew the museum’s property tax was a strong sign of community approval for his services.
His tenure in Detroit coincided with Mr. May’s growing commitment. Mr. May became a member of the institute in 2009 and has been a dedicated presence ever since, traveling with curators to events in the art world – a benefit that is often extended to important collectors.
He said he believed his loans were being handled right.
“As a philanthropist, I can assure you that my only motivation was to enrich the museum experience for its visitors and to help provide learning opportunities for students and art lovers,” he said.
He has donated preservation equipment to the institute and given paintings to other museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But he has not yet donated a work to DIA, although he said he could donate a painting from his collection in the future.
The painting attributed to the Poussin Circle stayed at the institute until 2012 and has now returned to its owner. Mr. Salort-Pons said he was encouraging his father-in-law to keep the St. Francis painting at the institute for much longer.
“I want it to last forever,” he said.