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Outside review clears DIA director of conflict-of-interest charges

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

A three-month investigation by a Washington, D.C., law firm into conflict-of-interest allegations against Detroit Institute of Arts Director Salvador Salort-Pons and board Chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. has cleared museum leadership on all counts.

The inquiry by Crowell & Moring, hired by the DIA board, came after a June complaint by the nonprofit legal organization Whistleblower Aid was sent to the Internal Revenue Service and the Michigan attorney general.

Salvador Salort-Pons

The complaint alleged conflict-of-interest violations tied to the loan of an El Greco painting to the museum by Salort-Pons' father-in-law, Dallas businessman Alan M. May.

The DIA release Wednesday summarizing the findings said investigators determined that both Salort-Pons and Gargaro "acted in all respects with the best interests of the DIA in mind," and that they had not engaged in any misconduct cited in the complaint.

A museum spokeswoman, Christine Kloostra, declined to provide further comment. The museum did not release a copy of the law firm's report.

Whistleblower Aid, which supported the Ukraine whistleblower whose allegations led to President Donald Trump's impeachment, was first contacted by DIA staffers who have not been identified.

"Neither Whistleblower Aid nor its clients, who are current and former DIA employees were contacted by Crowell & Moring during the course of what DIA describes as an ‘exhaustive’ investigation," founder and CEO John N. Tye said in a statement emailed to The Detroit News.

"Furthermore," he added, "the resulting report is not being released to the public. These are sure signs that the DIA is not serious about addressing the conflicts of interest disclosed by our clients."

The heart of the conflict-of-interest allegation was whether Salort-Pons' decision to hang his father-in-law's painting from 1590, "St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata," in the DIA could boost the work's resale value, and thus profit the director's family.

It's an allegation that came up four times in the Whistleblower Aid complaint last summer, which said that displaying the El Greco "could increase the personal wealth of the Director's family."

Tye echoed that accusation in his statement Wednesday, calling the loan arrangement "a sweetheart deal with (the director's) wealthy art collector father-in-law." He added, "DIA board members know what’s going on here, and they apparently don’t care."

The museum has just one El Greco painting, "Madonna and Child," in its permanent collection. The work was damaged in a botched restoration decades ago and is not exhibited.

Experts surveyed by The Detroit News doubted whether the resale value of work by an artistic superstar like Spanish master El Greco would be significantly increased by exhibition at the DIA.

Joan D. Walker, president of DuMouchelles Art Gallery, Michigan's leading auction house, told The News in July, "Any exhibitions help an artist. But I don't think display at the DIA is necessarily going to bump this painting's value."

The Whistleblower Aid complaint additionally charged that Gargaro approved the loan without first sharing the fact that it came from the director's family with the entire board, as required by the museum's Professional Practices Policies and Guidelines.

The Crowell & Moring report dismissed that, but did recommend unspecified changes to board procedures to prevent the appearance of conflict of interest in the future.

The ethics involved in art loans from close family members can be tricky, according to Sally Yerkovich, a Columbia University academic who's head of the ethics committee for the International Council of Museums.

She said it is possible to accept a loan from family or friends, "but it's dicey. It could be done if you cross all your t's and dot all our i's. But it's an appearance-of-impropriety question, mostly."

Yerkovich added, "When you get outside that closed museum universe, you can run into problems with public perception."

mhodges@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy