Around 10:30 a.m. this past Monday, July 6, Cleveland-based painter Frank Oriti received a strange and unexpected phone call. He’d only been home from a whirlwind, two-week trip through Europe for about a week. The unanticipated call was from an official at the National Portrait Gallery. As Oriti would discover, his artwork was making front page headlines in London, but for a very surprising reason.
Oriti earned a BFA in Two-Dimensional Studies from Bowling Green State University in 2006 and his MFA in Painting from Ohio University in 2011. He is represented by The Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland and RJD Gallery in Sag Harbor, NY. He won the Cleveland Arts Prize Emerging Artist Award in 2013 and was voted Best Local Painter by you in this year’s Scene Best of Cleveland issue.
He departed last month for London, where he attended the opening of the 2015 BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Oriti was one of just 55 artists out of a record-breaking 2,748 entries accepted into this international, juried exhibition. Just being accepted into the show was quite the accomplishment for a young painter from Cleveland, but that was just the beginning of the story.
“Last year, I made it to the second round,” explains Oriti. “This show was a ‘Bucket List’ item for me. I never expected anything like this. To enter a show with such prestige, to be selected out of thousands of entries, to meet so many artists I admire and respect, to be around so much amazing artwork and now this; it’s all just very surreal.”
Around 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon (June 5) alarms sounded at London’s National Portrait Gallery as roughly a hundred museum attendees stampeded for exits. The panic was caused when four masked individuals burst into the Gallery attempting to steal Oriti’s painting, Clarity, right off the wall. Despite the number of individuals, Clarity was their only target. Unsuccessful in removing the painting from the wall, they fled and were swiftly apprehended by authorities.
“The most important thing is that everyone is safe and unharmed,” Oriti states implicitly. “It’s all very strange. I was contacted Monday morning by officials at the National Portrait Gallery. They were very vague and didn’t offer a lot of details. They reassured me that no one was hurt and nothing was vandalized or stolen, but would not specify what exactly had happened. I spoke with a friend in London who shared a link to the London Evening Standard’s article. I still don’t have many details.”
Museum officials stated that they do not believe this was an attempted art theft or targeted attack on the artworks, but, if that is the case, why were men in masks attempting to take Oriti’s painting off the wall?
Rumors quickly surfaced to suggest the act was the work of art activist groups who regularly protest the annual exhibition because of BP’s sponsorship affiliation. However, none of the groups usually involved in these acts have taken responsibility. In fact, a spokesperson for Art Not Oil denied any involvement.
The timing is oddly noteworthy. Just two days before the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 attacks on the London Underground and a double decker bus. It’s widely considered “London’s 9/11.” Not exactly the best time to attempt to provoke panic in London.
With the suspects now detained and being questioned, hopefully more information will surface in the coming days. In the meantime, Oriti continues to paint portraits in his studio on the third floor of 78th Street Studios (Suite 301). Be sure to stop by for Third Friday open studio festivities on July 17 from 5 to 9 p.m. to meet the artist at the center of this attempted art heist, and see what he’s currently working on. No masked individuals, please.
(Frank Oriti Studio) 1300 W. 78th St. Suite 301, frankoritijr.com