Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to investigating government and corporate lawbreaking, has launched an official ethics complaint against two executives at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The complaint alleges Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the DIA, and Eugene A. Gargaro, the board chair, violated the ethics policies of the museum and the Association of American Museum Directors (AAMD) by displaying two paintings on loan from collector Alan May, who is Salort-Pons’ father-in-law and Gargaro’s close friend. Displaying a painting in a renowned art museum like the DIA is a practice known to enhance the value of the work.
The paintings are owned by the May Family Trust, whose trustees are Alan May and Salort-Pons’ wife, Alexandra May. It is unclear who the beneficiaries of the trust are, but the complaint says “family trusts are typically a mechanism to quietly pass assets to the founders’ heirs without going through the public probate process.”
The paintings referenced in the complaint are “St Francis Receiving the Stigmata” by El Greco, which has been on loan to the DIA since 2019 and is valued by the lender at $5 million, and “An Allegory of Autumn,” attributed to the circle of 17th-century French painter Nicolas Poussin, which was loaned to the museum between 2010 and 2012 and is valued by the lender at $500,000.
Though loans from private collectors are common in large art museums and the anonymity of the collector is often maintained, there are strict guidelines to ensure there is no conflict of interest in these situations. Whistleblower Aid is alleging
those guidelines were not followed by Gargaro and Salort-Pons.
The filing of the ethics complaint comes just days after a group of former and current staff at the DIA called for the resignation of Salort-Pons, alleging that he has fostered a toxic, culturally insensitive workplace during his time as director.
Related:DIA action group calls for museum director’s resignation
Whistleblower Aid first flagged the possible ethics issue with the Internal Revenue Service and the Michigan attorney general on June 28, 2020, after being approached by an anonymous group of DIA employees. The complaint, which was directed only at Salort-Pons at the time, was the subject of a New York Times story earlier this month.
Salort-Pons and Gargaro sent emails to all DIA staff members, alerting them to the media attention and assuring them that all appropriate practices had been followed.
Gargaro wrote: “I want to assure all of you that as Board Chair, I was aware of and approved the loan, as well as the loan in 2010 when Graham Beal was director, who also approved it. DIA staff followed long-standing museum processes for the loan, and staff working on the loan were also aware that Mr. May was the lender.”
Salort-Pons wrote he worked closely with the New York Times reporter, “providing him with all the relevant information establishing that all policies were followed correctly, including our Professional Practices Guidelines and Collections Management Policy.”
Gargaro and Salort-Pons both added that an outside law firm “with no ties to the DIA” was hired to conduct an independent review of the museum’s loan processes and policies.
Since then, the anonymous whistleblowers at the DIA have extended their complaint to also include Gargaro, who they say
has been a personal friend of May for years. Gargaro never disclosed that relationship in accordance with the written DIA ethics policies, the complaint alleges.
The complaint also says contrary to the statements made in Salort-Pons’ and Gargaro’s staff emails, correct procedures were not followed.
The DIA Professional Practices state that a director or board member “having personal questions of any museum-related issue and wishing to avoid a conflict of interest may file with the Committee on Professional Practices a statement disclosing his/her personal, business or organizational interests. … The individual will have the obligation to initiate committee consideration.”
Whistleblower Aid has not found evidence that Salort-Pons or Gargaro filed a written disclosure wi…