By Josh Usmani
The news of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Director David Franklin’s resignation shocked most of Cleveland’s art community, but as the news began to hit the internet and social media, those not surprised began to criticize the initial reporting of The Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com’s Steven Litt. So much so that The Plain Dealer has gone on the offensive to explain their role in the alleged, attempted whitewash/cover-up.
It’s difficult to even decide where to begin with this article. His resignation is a bombshell. The backlash from the community towards Litt, the PD/Cleveland.com and the CMA is another unprecedented “black eye” for the museum, the paper and city as a whole. Franklin’s controversial Canadian backstory is shockingly provocative. And then there are the many layers to each story that add more and more complexity to the issues.
For those that don’t know, after Franklin resigned for “personal reasons” to spend more time “writing and researching,” Steven Litt posted an article on Cleveland.com regarding the resignation nearly word-for-word from the statement on the CMA’s website. Almost immediately, readers began leaving vague comments about an affair with a staff member, her suicide, a police report, a missing cell phone and digital camera, a debacle with their Sicily exhibition and more.
Cleveland.com quickly deleted many of the comments, later claiming they were “inappropriate speculation.” However, these numerous, passionate commentators would not be silenced and continued to post comments on the article and on social media. Scene.com posted an article later that night with vague reports from anonymous sources claiming the rumors were true and discussing the initial Litt/PD article and the deleted comments.
Meanwhile, Litt posted an interview with Interim Director Fred Bidwell with almost no mention of the “rumors.” However, Litt was clearly aware of the backlash, and he quickly published a full story on the controversial affair, suicide, police report and missing evidence, as well as other details. The following day, Cleveland.com posted an article justifying Litt’s reporting through a timeline of events following Franklin’s resignation.
There is, however, one very justifiable possible reason for the alleged whitewash. The family of the woman in question who had the affair with Franklin and committed suicide about 5 months ago may have wanted to keep it quiet. It’s been rumored that the family settled with the museum out of court for an undisclosed amount with two stipulations. First, David Franklin must resign or be terminated immediately, and, secondly, their daughter’s name would be kept anonymous. The PD’s request for a comment from the family was denied. While respecting their privacy in this difficult time, it’s impossible to know for sure whether they were comfortable with the initial reporting. If they truly settled with the museum, they may never speak out.
The “missing links” of the whole story are two very important pieces of evidence missing from the scene after Franklin discovered the body – the woman’s iPhone and digital camera. Two things very suspicious for a man who left Canada in disgrace after authorities discovered he habitually deleted every email from his inbox, sent folder AND trash folder.
According to the Cleveland Heights police report, Dr. Franklin claimed he’d received a text from her stating she was “depressed from work.” He says he went to check on her, entered through an unlocked back door and found her dead in her bedroom after hanging herself from her ceiling fan. He was the only one on the scene, but it does not appear the police are investigating his role in the events.
It’s important to note that most people assume that Litt, being Cleveland’s top art critic, should have been as aware of this controversy as many community members and art professionals were. However, while Litt’s role at the PD makes him one of the most important voices in the community, he isn’t the most beloved member of Cleveland’s art community. He’s one of the harshest, most brutally honest voices in the local arts dialogue. It seems entirely likely that the museum may have worked very hard to keep this information from him.
However, Litt isn’t getting off that easy. Franklin’s controversial past as Deputy Director at Ottawa’s National Gallery was well documented long before Franklin came to Cleveland, yet Litt and the PD welcomed him with open arms without so much as a mention of his previous issues.
In Ottawa, his Director resigned in disgrace after Franklin accused him of being various harsh things and claimed he couldn’t do his job due to his battle with Parkinson’s disease. Franklin was fired twice for “just cause” and their board said in court documents that they’d not only lost faith in his ability to perform his duties, but also in him as a person:
“Based on Dr. Franklin’s misconduct in deleting e-mails relevant to grievances and access and privacy requests and directing or counseling a subordinate to do the same, the gallery has lost all confidence in Dr. Franklin’s ability to perform his duties as a senior employee and deputy director of the gallery. Similarly, Dr. Franklin’s subsequent behaviour, particularly the allegations he has made against the director and his colleagues in the context of these proceedings has caused the gallery further loss of faith and confidence in Dr. Franklin.”
At the time of the story, it was one of the most provocative in the art world. There are numerous articles from Canadian sources as well as a New York Times article from 2008. It is important to note that the Plain Dealer’s chairman, Terrance CZ Egger, sits on a marketing sub-committee of the museum’s board. Before Dr. Franklin’s resignation, there was never a mention of his controversy in Canada on Cleveland.com or in The Plain Dealer. However, in Litt’s follow-up article he notes, “Franklin said the allegations were never substantiated and that he was found innocent.”
It sounds like Litt needs to go back and read the court documents and those articles from 2008 for himself.
The story begins in April of 2008 when Dr. Franklin terminated Erika Dolphin, Assistant Curator of European and American Art, along with eight other employees, as part of what was described in the resulting court filing as a “cost-cutting move.” In Canada, museum staffs are unionized. Ms. Dolphin’s union officials filed a request under Canada’s Access-to-Information laws. These laws require the release of all materials relating to an employee’s termination – including e-mails, which the laws require government departments and agencies to permanently archive. The National Gallery is a government institution, so Dr. Franklin was obligated to follow these regulations. However, in his testimony, Dr. Franklin claimed he routinely and habitually deleted emails from his inbox, sent folder and even permanently deleted them from his trash folder.
During the investigation, emails surfaced between Dr. Franklin and Lise Labine, head of Human Resources at The National Gallery, discussing deleting “potentially unflattering” emails about Ms. Dolphin between Ms. Labine, Graham Larkin, Curator of European Art and Dr. Franklin. Both Dr. Franklin and Dr. Larkin proceeded to delete all relevant emails. The affidavit states that Dr. Larkin ultimately had his emails restored, but due to Dr. Franklin’s methodical habit of deleting every email from his inbox, sent folder and trash folder, his messages were lost forever.
Ms. Labine was suspended on May 12, 2008, for her role in the events and an internal investigation was started – which ultimately culminated in the June 11th “just cause” termination of Dr. Franklin. On June 16th the National Gallery apologized for the quick termination and gave Dr. Franklin a week to respond to their concerns, but on June 26th Dr. Franklin’s lawyer was informed that he would once again be fired on June 30th.
Franklin then sued the museum claiming in court documents that his termination was really part of his Director’s attempts to secure his own job for many years to come.
“Dr. Théberge’s strategy is to remove any candidate so that he can remain in his position as long as possible,” said Dr. Franklin in his court statement. “Removing me as a strong potential candidate for his position is part of his strategy. Mr. Théberge has also made negative comments to me about other individuals who are known to be on the gallery’s list of candidates.”
“Théberge suffers from Parkinson’s disease and based on Franklin’s personal observations he is no longer medically able to perform the functions required of a director of a major Crown corporation,” said Andrew Lister, Dr. Franklin’s attorney, in court documents. “He is unpredictable, vindictive, insulting and intimidating in his behaviour.”
Dr. Franklin’s court statement said his interim replacement, Mayo Graham, lacked the “relevant education” to fulfill the duties of the job and “lessens the reputation of the gallery nationally and internationally.” Additionally, he stated that promoting her to his position “provides further evidence of bias and poor judgment” on the part of Dr. Théberge.
Unfortunately, this whole story has too many loose ends to wrap up with a tight conclusion. Perhaps the most important lesson from this entire series of unfortunate events is that we only discovered these facts after Dr. Franklin resigned. He was in charge of what could arguably be described as our most important cultural institution for years, and the vast majority of the community hadn’t the vaguest clue as to his previous controversy.
Josh Usmani is a 27 year old local artist, curator and writer. Since 2008, his work has been featured in over 50 local and regional exhibitions.