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Turmoil at the Museum: Inside the Affair, Suicide and Abrupt Resignation That Rocked the Cleveland Museum of Art

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The Cleveland Museum of Art in University Circle is one of Northeast Ohio's flagship cultural institutions. It is home to an impressive collection of major paintings -- by Degas, Monet, Caravaggio -- and boasts one of the fattest endowments of any museum in the country. It was established in 1913 "for the benefit of all the people forever," and remains largely free to the general public. Thanks to ongoing support from individual and corporate mega-donors, the museum's lavish $350-million expansion is nearly complete. It is governed, as institutions of its ilk often are, by a board of trustees.

The board is generally comprised of the city's CEOs, wives of CEOs and scions of monied families with ties to the East Side. Most of them live in Gates Mills and Shaker Heights. They tend to be more deeply acquainted with law firms and corporate affairs than museums. Few, if any, have more than a dilettantish appreciation for or sophistication about art.  At the risk of sounding overly theatrical, they represent Cleveland's Power and Prestige in concentrate. They socialize in "donor circles."

David Franklin is the former CMA director who resigned under murky circumstances in October. Those circumstances had become much clearer in the weeks that followed as Scene and others reported that Franklin's "personal reasons" for stepping down from his post centered on an affair with a former CMA staffer named Christina Gaston. The young lady was found dead in her apartment in April from an apparent suicide and Franklin was the one to find her -- he made the 911 call the night of her death.

There were glaring inconsistencies and questions in the Cleveland Heights police report, as well as in what the CMA board had been serving up to Plain Dealer reporter Steven Litt.

Litt is the city's only regular art and architecture writer. He broke the news on Monday, Oct. 21, that David Franklin was resigning as CMA director for personal reasons. In a prepared statement, Franklin said that he wanted more time for research and writing. His resignation, after only three years at the helm, would be effective immediately. The resignation was characterized as a major blow in part because CMA had seen so much turbulence in its top position since 2000.

At the time, board chairman R. Steven Kestner told Litt he couldn't elaborate (though in fact he wouldn't elaborate) on Franklin's "personal reasons." He expressed little more than vague surprise.

"This is not something anybody plans for," Kestner told Litt.

When Scene reached a trustee in early November, the member of the board wasted no time in defending the board's actions over the past few weeks -- "Everything was done in the best interests of the institution" -- and praising Kestner's leadership.

"Steve is one of the most honest and transparent people I know," the trustee said.

But Kestner's 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 story the board tried to control was simple enough, but the board's paranoia and press ineptitude had complicated the narrative. And a complete lack of transparency or cohesive comment from the museum itself only muddled matters more. On Nov. 6, CMA attorney Stephen "Josh" Knerly sent an email to all trustees, life trustees, trustees emeriti and other museum officials with directives to not talk to Scene. According to Knerly, board discussions that took place in the presence of counsel were subject to attorney-client privileges. Furthermore, wrote Knerly, the board ought to speak with "one voice." (Multiple attempts to reach Knerly and Kestner for comment were unsuccessful.)

But the board wasn't speaking with any voice at all, and the absence of explanation left the public to infer something insidious and underhanded had happened between the beginning of the affair and the abrupt resignation, all in the hope of shielding the museum's reputation. "There was absolutely not a cover-up," said the trustee. "What there was was ignorance. And I don't know that that's any better."

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.

Ignorance and lying plagued all aspects of the sordid story, from media coverage of the bombshell news to the board's investigation of the affair, from how Cleveland Heights police handled the crime scene to how the board of the Cleveland Museum of Art has and continues to conduct its business. At the focal point of it all is the nexus of power and art in Cleveland.


David Franklin had a checkered executive past, though his questionable performance was never mentioned in PD editorials celebrating his arrival in Cleveland in 2010.

Steve Kestner chaired the CMA search committee in 2010 that ultimately "found" Franklin and brought him to Cleveland with no shortage of fanfare. Franklin was something of a dark horse in international circles after a controversy in Canada had garnered unwanted headlines. He was a Renaissance scholar sure, and had curated a critically acclaimed Caravaggio exhibition, but he wasn't a schmoozer or a go-getter. He was a "mumbler" who'd never run a major institution before. He was "not particularly dynamic" in group settings. He was fond of strong drink.

But he was, at the very least, a family man. Franklin's two young children and outgoing wife were seen as character assets. The board leadership hoped those assets might endear him to Cleveland and encourage him to establish roots. What the board wanted, desperately, after former CMA director Timothy Rub had jumped ship for Philadelphia without advance notice in 2006, was a long-term guy, a company man. Franklin was weak perhaps -- a man who "made bad jokes" and "wouldn't look you in the eye" -- but his weakness meant that he would not abandon them.

Plus, as former trustees have told Scene, Kestner assured the board prior to a unanimous vote that Franklin had been exonerated of all allegations in Canada. The search firm Phillips-Oppenheim, which consulted for the museum during the search, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the process.  

Franklin's triple-deleted emails" were something of a cause célèbre in a 2008 case that resulted in his dismissal from the National Gallery of Canada, where he served as deputy director and chief curator. Franklin was in fact fired twice (in immediate succession) and reinstated shortly thereafter when he challenged his firing in Federal Court.

The triple-deleted emails (deleted from Inbox, Sent, and Trash folders) revolved around a curatorial assistant named Erika Dolphin. At the time, her position was being eliminated, according to court documents, in a cost-cutting move.

The contents of the original Dolphin emails -- emails that former National Gallery HR director Lise Labine called "embarrassing to Dolphin and the institution," and which Franklin politely dubbed "unflattering" -- have never been made public.

But many of the other documents have, thanks to an appeal by the Ottawa Citizen when the case was sealed from the public eye. That appeal, by the way, hinged on the idea that risk of institutional embarrassment didn't constitute a legal justification to infringe upon the freedom of the press.

Revealed in those documents, and in a series of stories that took the art world by storm in 2008, was a rivalry at Canada's National Gallery that the press likened to civil war. Franklin and then-director Pierre Theberge were the warring factions, enlisting allies and creating a "toxic" atmosphere at the Gallery, a Federal Institution in Canada not unlike the Smithsonian here.

From conversations with reporters in Canada -- a truly approachable lot -- the prevailing feeling at the time was that Theberge, an aging director set to retire at the end of the 2008, was using the email controversy as a smokescreen to veil his primary motive: ensuring that Franklin did not succeed him. The New York Times coverage of the story in December 2008, arrived at the same conclusion.    

But the whole "horrible misunderstanding," as Franklin himself described the summer of 2008 in a PD story soon after he was appointed at CMA, turned out to be much more serious. In 2010, the Canadian federal information commissioner determined Franklin broke the law when he deleted the emails, in direct defiance of the Canadian Access to Information Act. The Canadian Justice Minister ultimately exonerated Franklin from a penalty that carried up to $10,000 in fines and two years in jail. So Kestner was technically correct, but the fact remains: Serious questions about whether or not Franklin would be disciplined were circulating mere months before his appointment in Cleveland. The attitude of National Gallery leadership regarding Franklin's reinstatement in 2008 should have been a preeminent red flag for any search committee later considering Franklin for a leadership position. 

Here's a taste of the National Gallery's Federal Court submission in the Franklin case:

"It would be irresponsible and insubordinate for any employee to conduct himself in the manner Mr. Franklin has over the past two months; but it is inexcusable in the case of Mr. Franklin, the gallery's chief curator and a deputy director. An intolerable situation would result should the gallery be forced to reinstate Mr. Franklin who has set such a poor example for other employees. To do so would undermine the gallery's integrity in the eyes of its employees and the general public."  

This was Kestner's knight in shining armor.


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