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The Cleveland-Franklin Mess, Continued

It’s never the crime, it’s the cover-up. Watergate, among other scandals, proved that and the forced resignation, aka firing, of David Franklin (below left) as director of the Cleveland Museum of Art last month, is showing it once again.

david-franklinpng-760e7cb48d14aa36Three articles have more details. First, Cleveland Scene, which was the first (I believe) to go beyond the spoon-fed resignation story, has written Turmoil at the Museum: Inside the Affair, Suicide and Abrupt Resignation That Rocked the Cleveland Museum of Art . It says, among other things, that the board terminated Franklin because he had repeatedly lied about the affair he had with a former CMA staffer, who later committed suicide. It then points out that the board also lost credibility because it lied. Among the key passages:

[Board chairman Steve] Kestner’s (below right) comments had mutated materially every time a new story appeared, contradicting statements he made earlier and fudging timelines.

“We fucked up, okay? We fucked up,” the trustee admitted. “We tried to control the story and we couldn’t control the story.”


The trustee confirmed that information had been laundered for both the public and museum staff — “It was more leaving out information than trying to mislead” — in part because the details of the affair and Christina Gaston’s death seemed too personal, too voyeuristic.

Odd, then, that this trustee claimed he was “offended” people thought the affair itself led to the museum’s “parting of ways” with Franklin. After all, that was the museum and Kestner’s line, trumpeted repeatedly by the Plain Dealer. If not the affair itself, then…

“[Franklin] lied to us!” the trustee said. “He lied to us directly, with no lack of clarity, over a protracted period of time. He ruined any trust there was there.”

The irony, of course, is that lying — directly, with no lack of clarity — and ruining trust is precisely what Steve Kestner and the board leadership have been doing since long before the Franklin story broke.

kestnerScene’s story goes heavily into the details of the death, Franklin’s whereabouts when, her missing cell phone, etc., but we’re sticking with museum issues here. It then says:

Early last year the museum hired an attorney to investigate [the possible affair] but, “The inquiry yielded no credible evidence to substantiate an inappropriate relationship and the inquiry was closed at that time,” Kestner wrote in his statement to the Plain Dealer. “We believe that it would have been irresponsible to take action based solely on rumors.”

Swift action was taken, according to the chairman, once they saw the police report: “In early October, for the first time and based on new information, the Board confirmed that a dating relationship had existed with a former employee during and after her employment at the Museum. Once the relationship was confirmed in early October, the Board acted expeditiously.”

However, documents show an attorney for the Cleveland Museum of Art contacted Ron Flower in September asking who the detective in charge of the investigation was. Kestner amended his version of events again to say yes, the museum knew of the police report in September but did not obtain proof of the relationship until October.

Rightly, this story addresses board responsibilities.

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer has two relevant articles. Lying about affair led to David Franklin leaving top job at the Cleveland Museum of Art, board chairman says relies very heavily on official comment, mainly from Kestner. A bit too credulous, imho.

And it also published The Cleveland Museum of Art cancels a major show planned by David Franklin, who resigned as director in October. That exhibition, Exporting Florence: Donatello to Michelangelo, was to be a major international loan show, and would have been spectacular.  Instead, the CMA will enlarge its previously planned exhibition of Surrealist photographs. What a letdown.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer (top); Baker Hostetler (bottom)


  1. Jim VanKirk says:

    Finally it’s becoming clear to everyone that it’s the peripheral people surrounding the Arts who are out of control and not Artists themselves.

    • In my years in the Cleveland Arts Scene, there were other debacles at the Board level of major arts organizations. I witnessed too personally. I’ve had to fictionalize my experience, but the events and others are in my book “The Wild Pitch.”

    • Gerry Kahn says:

      I’ll bet more than a few museum staffers reading this blog have stories to tell about their own institutions but are afraid to tell. Bravo to those brave souls in Cleveland who dared to go public with what they knew about Mr. Franklin and the board that hired him. That the loss of a life is intertwined with this sordid story is most unfortunate.

  2. Andre Mayer says:

    Obviously (and admittedly) the board handled matters badly – but aren’t the damning charges against them, as outlined here, pretty weak? The affair “led to” the dismissal, but was not the formal cause for which Franklin was dismissed. The board “knew of” the police report in September but did not see it until early September. This makes perfect sense. My reading is that Kestner has been, in the end, unusually candid about the mishandling of a difficult situation.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think the lesson is a simple one: no matter the motivation, whether it was about the concern for woman/her family or the board’s desire to justify its delayed response, you can’t contain a story. The rumors were, as the cliché says, rampant. So the best course is always to disclose, not obfuscate.

  3. “you can’t contain a story.” That is surely true, but is it fair? After all, the people involved are not exactly public officials (that is, they aren’t elected). Having resigned, what further responsibility does Franklin have to the public? The reigning dynamic today seems to be that no one in public life in any capacity has any right to have his or her misfortunes kept private. The result is the maximum amount of damage for the people involved and the maximum amount of titillation for the sensation-hungry public. The reporters who broke the story may have wrapped themselves in the virtue of public reporting, but it is really just a way to get traffic to the website. I realize that this is a minority opinion–an astonishing number of people to seem more than happy to air their linen in public nowadays. But it’s a real change in public attitudes. America used to be the place where gossips were condemned; now gossips are the rulers of the public domain.

    • The legal definition of a public official for libel, slander and privacy is not limited to elected officials. David Franklin, as museum director, regularly interviewed for press articles, appearing at public functions as a duty of job, and so on, would — I believe — be construed as a public figure. I even blogged about how he threw the first hockey puck at the local team’s game, etc., and we talked about how important it has become for museum directors to be been in public. He agreed with that. He is fair game for journalists.

      That said, his further responsibility to the broad public is nil. The Cleveland Scene report would seem to indicate, however, that public officials did not ask enough questions of him for the official record (not the public record, as of yet), her family feels. That is the crux of the public matter. The board mishandled the information it had by changing its story.

  4. A word or two about the intersection of Board responsibility and potential influence on the reporting about to the public. In a column excusing the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s weak reporting on it (“Sound judgment guided coverage of David Franklin’s resignation…”), the paper’s “reader representative“ Ted Diadiun quoted (without specifying the source) Plain Dealer Publishing Company Chairman Terrance Egger, who is a Trustee of the Museum. “I was unaware of the resignation and the issues involved until it was announced on Monday,” said Egger, who added that he didn’t initiate the conversation with Litt about the Franklin resignation. “As to whether I in any way had any influence on the timing or content of Steve’s stories, the answer is an emphatic no. The journalism always takes precedence in any board I serve on.” What can this inspire other than incredulity?

    The Plain Dealers articles on the Museum debacle functioned more or less as a mouthpiece for the Board of Trustees, focusing on official statements from the Board Chair about looking to the future, etc. but not acknowledging their ineptitude. The Board miserably failed the public. It members fail to perceive the fact that they are responsible for a public asset. Not unique to Cleveland, but the existence of a terrific little alternative paper (“The Scene”) made all the difference.

    (Forgive me, but I cannot help but note the interesting contrasts in the Cleveland story with the handling of the suicide of the Barnes Foundation’s legal counsel, Brett Miller a few short weeks before the extravaganza opening of the Philadelphia Barnes museum in the spring of 2012. The story broke, not in Philadelphia, but in London (“The Art Newspaper”). The Philadelphia Inquirer (partly owned by an underwriter of the controversial move of the Barnes Foundation) did not report on the death until almost a week after Mr. Miller killed himself. When it finally reported it, it was strictly limited to the barest of facts and expressions of deep condolence on the part of the Barnes administration and Board. There is no “Scene” in Philadelphia and no one made another peep about it, including how/if Mr. Miller’s suicide was related to his job at The Barnes. In his case, there was reportedly a note left, however its contents were not made public.)

    • Speaking as a member of the public (and one who has been to the Barnes Foundation in Merion), I have exactly zero need to know anything at all about Mr. Miller’s suicide. Your example of media failure perfectly illustrates how the media intrude into a private and sad event in order to generate negative publicity and web traffic. What component of “the public” needs to know more than we do? Aside from the reporter and his or her organization, who would gain?

      • I don’t think we have enough information one way or the other to KNOW whether or not Mr. Miller’s suicide was related to the Barnes move, and therefore possibly a matter of public interest. But I agree with Evelyn Yaari that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s poor coverage of the Barnes move leaves the paper’s judgment open to question.

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