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Arts

El Greco Painting at Center of Curator Controversy in Detroit

DETROIT – A painting by El Greco, the Cretan-born artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos, is at the center of a controversy over a whistle-blower complaint concerning a possible conflict-of-interest for Salvador Salort-Pons, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), the New York Times reported on July 15.

Salort-Pons arranged for the loan of the painting St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata by El Greco from a “wealthy Dallas collector” who also happens to be his father-in-law, according to the Times.

The painting “now hangs in the reopened museum’s medieval and Renaissance galleries” and “a whistle-blower complaint, filed with the Internal Revenue Service and the Michigan attorney general, [is] asserting that conflict-of-interest rules to prevent self-dealing have been skirted,” the Times reported.

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

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

Greg Stevens, director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University, told the Times that “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. 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 Times reported. The “bond between museums and wealthy collectors is one of the essential relationships of American museums,” the Times reported, adding that “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,” the Times reported, pointing out that 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.”

DIA has only one El Greco in its collection, Madonna and Child which “was donated in 1970 by a Detroit collector,” the Times reported, noting that “damaged by a repaint, it has not been exhibited for decades.”

Meanwhile, the El Greco on loan, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, painted in the late 16th century is “valued at $5 million in the museum’s internal database, [and] shows the young saint standing alone in a wild landscape,” the Times reported.

Salort-Pons praised the painting as a “dynamic image of ecstasy” and pointed out that it “surpasses in quality the institute’s existing El Greco,” the Times reported.

“When I heard that he bought this painting, I called him [May] and said you need to lend this to the DIA because it’s an amazing painting,” Salort-Pons told the Times.

DIA chairman Eugene A. Gargaro was informed of the planned loan and approved it, the Times reported.

“If it’s disclosed to me, then it’s disclosed to the whole board,” Gargaro said in an interview, the Times reported.

Salort-Pons told the Times that “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.”

He had previously borrowed one other painting from his father-in-law, back in 2010, the Times reported, noting that An Allegory of Autumn, attributed to the circle of the French artist Nicolas Poussin, is “a 17th century painting valued at $500,000.”

Salort-Pons, “then a curator, said he sought the approval of Graham Beal, who was the director at the time,” the Times reported, adding that Beal said via 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 told the Times.

“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,’” the Times reported, adding that “Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit law firm in Washington representing the staff members, said Salort-Pons did not take nearly enough care.”

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

“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 whistle-blower complaint about President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine,” the Times reported, noting that “he declined to say how many institute staff members were involved in the complaint,” while May and Salort-Pons “declined to comment about the trust.”

May said that he “believed his loans were handled properly,” the Times reported.

“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 told the Times.

Of the El Greco painting’s future at DIA, Salort-Pons said that “he was encouraging his father-in-law to keep the St. Francis painting at the institute for much longer,” the Times reported.

“I would like it to stay forever,” he told the Times.

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