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.
TROUBLE IN THE NORTH
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.
Like a lot of young women with impeccable penmanship and a compulsion to anthologize, Christina Gaston had a handwritten list of her favorite things in the world: Love for my family. Going to the movies. First snowfall. Driving to music lessons and performances. Christmas. Libraries. Museums.
Gaston worked at the Cleveland Museum of Art in the development office from September 2009 to November 2012. She then took a job as the managing director of ChamberFest, a summer concert series.
She was a woman of disarming beauty, charisma and compassion; a woman who relished the smell of dusty bookstores, collected antiques before it was trendy, a woman who made Audrey Hepburn look frankly plain. She was a woman who was not above walking a mile through snow in heels to volunteer; a woman who loved, above all, music. She cultivated that love in the Dominican Republic when she lived there with her family, playing the violin at a very young age, back when the instrument's body was roughly the size of her torso. She'd practice for hours a day, a testament to her passion.
Only when a serious injury short-circuited what might have been a promising music career – she'd obtained academic degrees in music and played in ensembles from Battle Creek to Poland – did she find solace in her love of museums and a job at CMA.
It was there she met Franklin; they started a romantic relationship sometime in early 2012. It would continue, with one reported interruption, during and after Gaston's departure from the museum. Franklin was and is still married with two children.
They were in love, though, and had designs on marriage. Franklin claimed he was in the middle of divorce proceedings with his wife; he had in fact moved out of his Shaker Heights home, which the museum helped pay for, and into an apartment in Uptown on Euclid Avenue in September, 2012. They would be together once his divorce was final, free to move away and look for other jobs, he told her. (Franklin has since moved back into his Shaker Heights home.)
They'd traveled together to Spain, where Franklin was giving a speech, and had an overseas trip to Italy booked and planned for the first week of May – a week after her death.
Sources described the relationship as an "open secret," even though Gaston herself was a very private person. Franklin was acutely concerned about his reputation and appearances – when Gaston and he attended the same event, they would act like nothing was going on – and worried about people discussing the affair. He'd still appear socially with his wife.
After her death on April 29, news of Gaston's suicide spread quickly, if unofficially, through the museum's various departments. Many of the higher-ups knew immediately – one high-ranking museum official was disseminating the news to those tied into the Cleveland arts scene the next day, for example. And Laura Bidwell -- wife of trustee and current interim director Fred Bidwell -- was very close with Christina Gaston and knew about the suicide soon enough to send flowers to the Gaston family for Christina's funeral in Georgia on May 5.
Some employees emailed about the news; others subsisted on rumors for weeks. One former employee says he'd always thought that it was Gaston's sister who had found her. Though Gaston was no longer employed at the museum at the time, colleagues were "surprised" and "appalled" that no official word was given to the staff.
For the most part, however, Gaston's passing was so private and well concealed that many of her close friends were unaware of the news. Her birthday was in early May, less than two weeks later, and one CMA coworker described the horror of watching Christina's Facebook page erupt with predictably jolly salvos.
There was no obituary in local papers, though. Christina's older sister, Cassandra, said it wasn't necessarily surprising. "We're very private people," she told Scene.
A memorial service was held for coworkers and friends at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, where Christina had volunteered every other Saturday taking tickets, but that wasn't until July 22, nearly three months later.
Whether or not the death of a young woman on the rise in Cleveland's cultural community was newsworthy remains a question of taste. But David Franklin's presence and the couple's relationship, which the museum was at least aware of, should have instantly propelled questions. Instead, the museum sat distinctly in silence and Franklin continued operating as its director.
THE NIGHT CHRISTINA DIED
Christina Gaston's bedroom in the old brick apartment building on Euclid Heights was cluttered with the accessories of a stylish, artsy 34-year-old woman -- books, high heels, shopping bags, a rolling black suitcase with clothes piled on top. On one side of her bed is a lint roller resting on the ledge of the music stand that must have held hundreds of pages of Christina's sheet music as she played her violin. On the other side is a white nightstand on which sits an old paperback copy of Larry Niven's science fiction book, The Ringworld Engineers, next to her Hello Kitty alarm clock and a copy of The Baron in the Trees.
She died there on April 29.
According to Cleveland Heights police officer Andrew Trhlin's official report that night, he and officer Douglas Olp got a call at 12:13 a.m. -- Sunday night into Monday morning -- to respond to a report of an unconscious woman at the apartment. David Franklin had just dialed 911 to report finding his friend hanging. They arrived and were flagged down by Franklin waiting for them outside and led to the apartment's back door and then the bedroom, where they found "an unresponsive white female in the rear bedroom leaning over the bed." Her face and hands were purple, and there was a white rope hanging from the ceiling fan, "the other end of the rope was near Gaston's head, however, we could not confirm it was around her neck due to her positioning on the bed, her hair, and the heavy green coat she was wearing." At 12:20 a.m., Cleveland Heights fire showed up -- police and fire respond to calls like this in tandem -- and she was officially pronounced dead six minutes later. Trhlin called the county coroner's office at 12:51 and an investigator showed up a half hour later.
When police (and then the county medical examiner's office) arrived, her 5'2", 116-pound lifeless body was no longer hanging, but leaning over the side of the bed next to her nightstand. Her legs were underneath her on the hardwood floor (as if she were kneeling), torso leaning up against the side of her bed with her face down and arms stretched out in front on top of it. She wore a green herringbone coat over a long sleeve white shirt, long black skirt and shin-high black socks.
The rope -- perhaps as thick as a dime is wide -- was wrapped once to make a simple overhand knot around a single metal stem that connects the dusty wooden blade to the base of the ceiling fan. Sitting on the other side of the bed was a pair of scissors and an unused pile of the same rope material with a perfectly and cleanly tied noose with a hangman's knot on one end. Elsewhere in the apartment police found some of Gaston's prescriptions: tizanidine (a muscle relaxant), trazodone (an antidepressant) and Cymbalta (for depression and anxiety). In the kitchen was an opened bottle of red wine, a used wine glass, and four bowls on the ground -- two filled with dry cat food and two filled with water -- for her two cats. Not found anywhere that night, in either her apartment or car, was her iPhone. No suicide note, either.
David Franklin was described as "extremely emotionally distraught" by Trhlin. In his report, he wrote:
"While waiting for coroner to respond, I spoke further to Franklin. Franklin stated at 2000 hours the previous night [8 p.m. Saturday], he received a text message from his friend Christina Melinda Gaston stating that she was "depressed from work." Franklin stated after he did not hear back from Gaston, he responded to her apartment to check on her. Once at her apartment, Franklin stated he went to her front door and rang her apartment door bell. Franklin stated Gaston did not respond, however, he noticed her apartment lights were on and her interior patio door was open. Franklin stated he then went to the back door and again was unsuccessful making contact. Franklin stated he found that the back door was unlocked and he entered the apartment. Once inside, Franklin stated he located Gaston unconscious in the bedroom (north side of the apartment). Franklin stated he immediately contacted emergency services and stood by until police arrived. Franklin, who was visually upset, completed a brief written statement."
That's it for David Franklin on the scene. Police didn't ask to see the "depressed from work" text message he said Christina sent him. Nor did they ask him about Christina's missing phone. Later records show police dismissed him before the medical examiner showed up.
HOLES IN THE INVESTIGATION AND QUESTIONS FROM THE FAMILY
Christina Gaston's family down in Georgia might have been far removed from the scene in sheer mileage but they were more involved in the case than any local institution or agency. For months after her death, unsatisfied with the investigation and official story, they had pieced together their own look into her death. And they prodded Cleveland Heights police incessantly with information and requests to answer lingering questions.
For instance, where was her phone?
It was never recovered, but the family did have partial phone records from Christina's account, and that information showed definitively that she never sent a text to David Franklin that Saturday night, the one he claimed said she was depressed from work. In fact, only one text was sent that day, to a graphic designer who did work for ChamberFest. The phone was still active, though, the night Franklin found her body: a data transfer from the phone was sent at 12:22 a.m., minutes after Franklin's 911 call, and another at 2:34 a.m., explained to the Gaston family by an AT&T technician as an establishment to a local cell tower. The Gaston family had plenty of questions and, in September, the Cleveland Heights police assigned the case to a detective. (City Law Director Gibbon downplayed the action in a conversation with Scene as a "courtesy to a distraught stepfather" and not an official investigation.)
By Oct. 23, however, two days after Franklin "resigned" from the museum, police still had not bothered to ask David Franklin about Christina's cell phone. According to the case report, on that day, Franklin's attorney, Virginia Davidson, called the detective to ask if her client was under investigation for Christina's death. The detective said, "We received a call from Ms. Gaston's stepfather and that we were trying to resolve some 'questions' the family had," but any formal investigation would have to be conducted by the coroner. But, "I told Davidson that we still did not know the location of Gaston's phone and whether her client knew of its whereabouts and whether he could address any other 'questions' the family had."
Davidson said she would ask Franklin about it and call them back that afternoon. That never happened. "On this same date I received call back from Davidson and she was upset at an article that was posted online from a local magazine," the case report notes. "Davidson told me that due to 'people now writing articles about my client' it would be in her client's best interest not to answer any of our questions."
When reached by Scene, Davidson said, "The details that are being reported in the media concern Dr. Franklin's personal life. There was a tragedy. It has nothing to do with the exceptionally fine work that Dr. Franklin has done for the museum. We just ask that you give his family its privacy at this time."
The Gaston family had other questions as well. The toxicology report from the medical examiner showed no drugs in her system, despite the prescriptions, some of which hadn't been refilled in months, in her apartment. Also, there was the ceiling fan, which Gaston's stepfather, Ron Flower, had installed. How, they wondered, was Christina able to get the knot around the fan? "Standing on her bed -- a soft mattress (no supporting box-spring) on a metal frame -- Christina would have missed reaching the ceiling fan blades by at least five inches," a family member wrote. That she also still couldn't move her right arm well while recovering from shoulder surgery also puzzled the family.
In the months following Christina's death, the Cleveland Heights police department and the county medical examiner had each been telling the Gaston family that it was the other agency that should answer questions. The medical examiner had been telling them they only re-open cases for further investigation based on information provided by the police department. The police had been telling them they couldn't look into anything without the explicit order from the medical examiner.
"Our department did not consider this a suspicious death," wrote one officer, but he allowed the family to simply "vent" their concerns: "I explained that we could not open an investigation. However, I did advise Flower we could look into a few of his 'concerns and questions' about our police report, and make an addendum to clarify our report, and forward that to coroner's office."
"Police feel at this point they are not interested in proceeding any further with looking into those issues," said law director Gibbon. "As far as they are concerned, the case is closed, unless the coroner's office asks them to assist them."
The coroner's office quickly pronounced the death a suicide the day after the death, and there was plenty of circumstantial evidence to point to that fact.
Initially, officer Trhlin wasn't surprised to find Christina Gaston dead from an apparent suicide when he responded to the call. The department had to deal with her suicide attempt just several months prior, he told both David Franklin and the medical examiner investigator. The M.E.'s report noted: "Cleveland Heights PD stated that the decedent made a call in 2012 (end of) to Mobile Crisis. She was making threats of suicide while in her car near her apartment. They located her and she was taken to University Hospital."
Like the text message, that call to Mobile Crisis -- a 24/7 mental help hotline -- by Christina never existed. The family checked her phone records, Cleveland Heights police records, and talked to the hospital, finding no such record of that call or incident. Flower included this information in a long letter to Cleveland Heights police in September. A Cleveland Heights detective finally confirmed on October 30 that the suicide attempt never happened.
There are records of a previous, aborted suicide attempt by Christina in 2010, however, though the family noted she had undergone outpatient therapy until 2012 and was no longer in need of treatment for depression.
DAVID FRANKLIN'S ACCOUNT, IN HIS OWN WORDS
David Franklin's behavior after Christina died was odd, according to the family. Over the next months, Franklin first avoided her sister Cassandra's calls, then hounded her almost nonstop with text messages and phone calls proclaiming his love for Christina and sorrow he felt. (Franklin did not respond to request for comment from Scene.)
Those calls, which were recorded by Cassandra, found Franklin detailing his and Christina's future plans – he claimed his divorce paperwork would have come weeks after the funeral, which he attended, and they had been looking at houses together and wanted to get married soon. He hated Cleveland, and didn't think it was the right city for Christina. He had "failed her" by not recognizing problems before they materialized.
He'd ramble for minutes at time without interruption in his soft Canadian lilt, making oddly specific statements about the exact reasons Christina would have killed herself and exactly what was going through her mind the days leading up to the incident, despite only telling police that he had responded to her apartment that night because she hadn't responded to a text. Listen to a part of that call here, where he describes finding her:
Franklin told Cassandra Gaston that when he didn't hear back from Christina that Sunday, he thought either "she was having emergency meetings with the ChamberFest people and therefore was gone Sunday morning" or she was in a sleeping pill-induced nap.
"I do honestly believe that that was the trigger, the work, she just felt overwhelmed," he said. The pain from her shoulder surgery, a slight mistake at work – it all added up, Franklin contended. "I assume it really had to do with her arm. The pain, the chronic pain she described something that was chronic, she never could escaped it and it just drove her to this moment of despair."
Deep into the conversation, Franklin continued:
"I really think she woke up on Saturday, she got fucked around by the music festival that had been fucking her around for a few weeks, she was probably exhausted, her arm hurt, she thought she had somehow made a mistake, that was going to embarrass her in terms of the festival, and then probably -- and then I wasn't available, and there must be some demons in her head -- the kind that we all have in a way, but she couldn't dismiss them and she didn't reach out to anyone. That night, she didn't have any of her defenses that day. I think it was very spontaneous, I don't know why that makes me feel somewhat better, but I guess it slightly does, it makes me feel slightly more like an accident I guess."
He also thought the pills could have played a role: "Well, that's the thing, though, I don't know whether that's actually what killed her, in fact, or whether that was just paraphernalia, see what I mean? Whether she died from an overdose -- I just didn't spend enough time there." Franklin also noted that Christina had confessed to a prior suicide attempt and he regretted not prodding her about that further, and he repeatedly mentions the alleged suicide attempt that Cleveland Heights police informed him of that never actually happened.
Throughout the conversation, Franklin mentioned Christina died "quickly" and "spontaneously." He also provided more information on his whereabouts the day she died that he didn't mention to police: He never told police or the medical examiner he was at her apartment earlier in the day.
"I actually went over once in the afternoon. I rang the bell, no answer," he told her. "I didn't have a key, which in retrospect was totally fucking stupid on my part." The family thinks Franklin did, in fact, have key to her place. The duplicate they had made for her was not in her apartment when they searched for it, and Christina had a key to Franklin's place with her car keys.
"Anyway, so, I didn't have a key, so I left -- I can't remember what time, maybe that was like 4 in the afternoon or something, and I went home again, and I just thought 'this is too strange' by the evening. So I went back, and then I realized because it was getting dark, there was a light on in her bedroom. I went to the back door and the door was open, so I found her and I called 911."
The Gaston family created their own timeline for Franklin. When Franklin stated he noticed her light was on because it was "getting dark," the Gastons checked the times for sunset that day: some time between 8:21 and 8:51 p.m. They estimate Christina died some time between 9 and 11 p.m, likely around 10 p.m., based off the documented condition of her body and the autopsy report. Franklin called 911 just after midnight.
"I left before the coroner came 'cause they, I think, I guess they figured out who I was or whatever," Franklin said.
WHAT THE MUSEUM KNEW & WHEN IT KNEW
In the midst of a finish line-sprint to complete the $350-million renovation and intent on protecting the image of the museum, which had been pegged as incapable of attracting top talent and having run through a string of directors in just a few short years, Kestner had every reason to protect David Franklin.
But something pressed the board in October to demand his resignation. While Scene broke the news of the affair and suicide, it wasn't until two days later that Kestner "confirmed" to the Plain Dealer that the extramarital affair was behind the departure. The museum was aware of rumors as early as January 2013, Kestner said, but it wasn't until early October that proof of their "dating relationship" was discovered. Early last year the museum hired an attorney to investigate 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.
A source close to the board says the investigation included searches of internal email and phone records.
But that investigation should have happened months earlier.
An anonymous letter was sent to all museum board members in December 2012/January 2013. That letter included allegations of the affair with mention of Christina and her position at the museum by name. Instead of any semblance of a real investigation, David Franklin was questioned twice about the rumors – once by Kestner himself. His steadfast denial was enough for the chairman, who then brushed off the rumors to fellow board members as flat-out false.
One source close to the museum speculated that the board didn't pursue because they didn't want to find out the truth, that "they are conditioned, absolutely programmed, not to make waves."
Sources familiar with the museum's operations have said it would be "unthinkable" and "preposterous" that the museum wouldn't have a policy in place regarding romance in the workplace. (The museum's media relations director, Caroline Guscott, has not responded to multiple requests for comment about museum policies regarding office relationships or sexual harassment.)
A former board member did confirm that there's an employee manual and code of ethics, including a whistleblower policy and policies regarding sexual harassment, but could not say whether a codified policy on office romance existed. They suggested, if nothing else, that such relationships are bad for employee morale.
That's likely one reason why David Franklin and August Napoli, the museum's development director, helped orchestrate Christina Gaston's move to ChamberFest (an annual concert series) in November 2012.
Christina's departure from the museum was already suspicious. Friends of hers had told Scene that the job stressed her out. She was a perfectionist, and ChamberFest was a small, unorganized operation. Whether or not she felt a vocation to fundraising, she was considered a woman with a bright future in the museum's development office, described by one senior curator as a "rising star." The ChamberFest job represented, among other things, a pay cut and a loss of medical benefits. Christina had undergone arthroscopic shoulder repair one month prior (Oct. 19, 2012) and required extensive physical therapy.
But in a recorded phone call with Cassandra Gaston after Christina's death, David Franklin talked about Christina's employment in weirdly paternalistic terms: He thought it would be "good for her" to try out a management position. He didn't view it as a demotion. Music was her passion, after all. And even when the job proved to be an emotional burden:
"We all realized it wasn't working out terribly well...We even had -- when I say 'we' I mean me and her former boss, Augie, who's very, very friendly with Christina and offered to help her too. He and I basically had other...were looking at other positions that she could apply for, or even go back to the museum."
Franklin and Napoli were pulling strings. That much was clear. But the only ones who could truly corroborate the strategies at play were Franklin and Napoli themselves. Franklin hinted that easing whatever on-the-job tension existed was a factor in getting Christina the job, but only a minor factor. Though Franklin alluded to getting Christina the job, little can be found to corroborate that fact.
When reached by Scene, August Napoli communicated that he had nothing to say and has not responded to follow-up emails.
Diana Cohen, the executive director of ChamberFest, lauded Christina Gaston as a person and employee but did not answer questions about her employment placement. "I do not have any comment at this time," she wrote in an email.
All other CMA board members declined to comment or could not be reached.
HOW THE SCANDAL WAS COVERED
Among the board members of the Cleveland Museum of Art is Terry Egger, publisher of the Plain Dealer. Egger would have received the anonymous letter detailing the allegations of the affair, among other misgivings and professional transgressions of Franklin. But, Egger told Plain Dealer reader representative Ted Diadiun, he claimed he did not know anything until the Monday when Franklin's resignation was announced. (Egger sits on marketing sub-committee, not the executive committee.)
Egger's role was troublesome at first glance – should the publisher of the city's daily newspaper even be sitting on the boards of institutions that the paper is trusted to cover objectively? – as Litt's initial reporting did not delve into the "personal reasons" for Franklin's departure. Comments on the story that insinuated or bluntly made mention of the affair were quickly deleted. And many wondered whether the paper would pursue the story at all until other outlets pushed them. One reputable source contended that Egger would push his reporters to follow any story, even if it affected a board he sat on, as far as it would go, but the optics didn't look great.
"I was unaware of the resignation and the issues involved until it was announced on Monday," said Egger in Diadiun's column. "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. I think Steve is very good at what he does, and I encouraged him only to pursue the story and do his very best work."
Litt himself was ill equipped for the story, whether or not Egger should have or did provide tips like the anonymous letter. It's unclear whether Litt was privy to the scuttlebutt around the museum and heard the rumors, or whether Egger knew about Christina's death in April (one source said it's preposterous to think he didn't know the very next day). And there's no way of knowing whether the museum was ever questioned about the affair or whether a judgment call on what is and isn't news was made.
"Rumors aren't stories," Plain Dealer managing editor Thom Fladung told Diadiun, exhibiting a luxury granted by the paper to the museum that isn't shown toward, say, sports teams or politicians. "We were not going to be compelled to publish by what anyone else did. We decided not to file a story just on the police report, we wanted to push the board to tell us what prompted the resignation. By waiting a day, we were able to lay out for the readers clearly what the board knew, when they knew it, and to report that in the context of the fact that (Franklin) continues to have a relationship with the museum." Except that all the information in what Litt described as a "deliberative piece of journalism," was, again, lies and half-truths from Kestner.
Litt's a capable, veteran reporter, but also a cheerleader and PR mouthpiece, more investigative stenographer than investigative reporter. But he's also a reporter with a vested interest in covering the museum favorably. His former colleague at the PD, Donald Rosenberg, who was laid off in August, was reassigned from the orchestra beat in 2008 after he wrote a series of critical articles about conductor Franz Welser-Most. In Cleveland, the boards rule.
Litt and Egger did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
THE GOVERNANCE CONUNDRUM
R. Steven Kestner is suspended between a rock and a hard place. If he admits that he saw the Christina Gaston police report or knew of its contents much earlier than he says he did, which is likely, it means he actively covered up his director's involvement in a death, an affair, and the deceit attendant to both; and nonetheless let him continue to direct the Cleveland Museum of Art for five months. If, on the other hand, Kestner didn't see the report or know of its contents until he says he did -- willfully or otherwise -- the chairman of the CMA board is guilty of profound negligence in pursuing critical information about the most important figure at the institution he governs.
By Kestner's own admission, the board knew of Franklin/Gaston rumors in January, 2013, four months before Gaston's death. Yet no one thought it was serious enough to pursue beyond their "internal investigation."
And why is that?
Because in Cleveland, the tradition of board membership has been built around the board members themselves, not around the institutions they govern. Being on a board, for the many of these people, is a chance to write checks and "give back." It's a chance, moreover, to perpetuate the image of themselves as people of power and prestige in the community. There's long been a tradition of gratitude for trustees' financial contributions, and that's much deserved. But that gratitude has instilled in them an almost deific sense of entitlement, the certainty that they are beyond reproach. There's zero transparency, zero accountability and, consequently, zero criticism.
But here's one:
The board members have become so enamored of their membership that they've forsaken, to some degree, their trusteeship. It is their fiduciary responsibility to govern the institution, in this instance the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the public trust, to protect and advance its ideals. But they haven't. They hired a director ill equipped for the task to run their museum. They opted to be cheerleaders rather than governors and overlook, at best, or cover up, at worst, his unprofessionalism, even when it was clear that they'd made a mistake.Know more? Contact us at email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact the Gaston family with additional information and personal messages at email@example.com
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