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Cleveland Gets Court Approval to Circumvent Donor Intent

Deborah Gribbon, Cleveland Museum’s new interim director

With no one to argue for the dead donors in court (since the Attorney General had declined to do so), the Cleveland Museum of Art today got its wish: It received court approval to beef up its capital campaign with up to $75 million from the income of two bequests and two trust funds that the donors had designated for art purchases. The money would be withdrawn over a 10-year period to help pay for the museum’s expansion.

Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes:

Permission to deviate from the original purposes of two funds from the museum’s endowment and two outside trusts was granted Wednesday by Judge Anthony J. Russo in Cuyahoga County Probate Court.

Janet Landay, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors had told me (scroll down) that AAMD was reviewing the situation but wouldn’t “have anything more to add until the court decision.” The leading arbiter of museum ethics should have taken a position before this, but it should certainly do so now.

As I said in my original post about this lamentable development:

AAMD’s response to this breach of good faith with donors will be crucial: Without a swift, forceful corrective, Cleveland’s action could make benefactors around the country doubt that museums can be trusted to honor their wishes. Cleveland’s second thoughts may well give rise to second thoughts by potential donors.

But don’t listen to me. Listen to an Attorney General who does take his watchdog role seriously—Robert Cooper Jr. of Tennessee, who wrote the following in his recently filed brief in the ongoing court battle over the fate of the Stieglitz Collection that was given to Fisk University by Georgia O’Keeffe:

The statutory obligation of the Attorney General’s Office in this case is to ensure that the charitable purposes of Miss O’Keeffe’s gift are carried out in a manner that is most consistent with her intent, that protects the interests of the citizens of the State, and that does not discourage future charitable giving [emphasis added].

The key person whom we still haven’t heard from on the Cleveland situation is Deborah Gribbon, who recently came on as the museum’s interim director and had a reputation for probity when she directed the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Just because Cleveland got the court approval, doesn’t mean it has to use it.

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