Art fight turns nasty Museums battle: Court documents detail Baltimore Museum of Art's fierce opposition to to Maryland Institute's effort to sell its famed Lucas Collection.

March 21, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

If the battle over one of Baltimore's most important art collections proves anything, it is that members of the city's cultural circles aren't just genteel souls who discuss esoterica at exhibition openings.

They'll fight dirty if they have to or at least that's what is alleged in the latest court documents filed by the Maryland Institute, College of Art, as part of its effort to sell its famed Lucas Collection of prints, paintings and sculptures.

The documents are part of a yearlong squabble in which the city's two largest museums the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery have sought to block the sale of an art collection they have housed for more than 60 years.

The Institute has been talking about selling the collection since at least 1989, and its court filing includes memos dating back to years in which BMA officials discussed how to deal with the threat. In these memos:

Brenda Richardson, the BMA's deputy director, suggests trying to convince the Institute's board to oppose a sale by placing an article on the collection's importance in a magazine the trustees respect. The idea was to pay a "name author" to sign an article ghostwritten by someone on the museum's staff. She concedes that those involved might feel "slimy."

Jay Fisher, the BMA's curator of prints and drawings, cautions museum administrators that he "would be embarrassed" if the Institute were to discover how badly some of the art on loan was being treated.

Various members of the BMA's staff wonder whether they should change the longstanding practice of caring for all art the same way and spend less on borrowed art, since it might not remain in the museum.

The documents present only part of the story. The BMA will have its say when it files a response March 29. Arnold Lehman, the BMA's director, said it would be inappropriate for officials to comment while the case is in the courts.

The museum's attorney, Harry D. Shapiro, said the Institute has "characterized the testimony of Brenda and others in a way that we are quite frankly taken aback about, but I guess all's fair in love and war.

"We think once the judge looks at both sides, the impression will be quite different from the one the Institute has made," he added.

The legal drama began in January 1995 when the Institute asked the Baltimore Circuit Court to declare that it has the right to sell the Lucas Collection, the heart of which is 18,000 prints, among them works by Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Eugene Delacroix.

The art was given to the Institute in 1910 by renowned Baltimorean Henry Walters. It had been bequeathed to Walters a year earlier by his friend, George A. Lucas.

In 1933, however, the bulk of the collection was lent to the BMA. Later, several pieces were transferred to the Walters Art Gallery.

In September, Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ruled that the Institute may sell all or part of the collection.

The museums filed counterclaims asking to be reimbursed for expenses incurred while caring for the art over nearly six decades the issue now before the court.

The Walters has since withdrawn its claim because it borrowed only five works, although it still opposes the sale.

BMA administrators have maintained that the museum has cared for the Lucas Collection as if the artworks were its own and under the assumption that the collection would remain at the BMA and Walters forever.

But in its recently filed motion, the Institute says, "there is no factual and legal basis for the defendants' counterclaims."

The papers filed by the Institute raise questions about the standard of care the Lucas Collection was receiving at the BMA over the years. They include a 1992 memo to Mr. Lehman and Ms. Richardson from Mr. Fisher, the curator of prints and drawings.

"While we have always managed the Lucas Collection needs on a similar priority basis as our own collection," Mr. Fisher writes, "I have wondered about this recently as we have faced constant threats of collection sale.

"On the one hand, this is work we really should have done decades ago, and I guess we actually promised we would care for the collection, but on the other hand, why should we sacrifice our own collection for immediate effort that may only end up wasted if the collection should be sold.

"I would be embarrassed if they learned how badly some of the prints are kept."

In a deposition also included in the filing, Mr. Fisher maintained that the fact that the Lucas Collection was owned by the Institute never influenced the way it was cared for by the BMA.

The court papers also include memos challenging the BMA's argument that it has cared for the Lucas Collection under the assumption that it would remain at the museum forever.

One memo shows that the BMA has fretted about losing the collection for at least five years.

In 1991, after the Institute had announced it was considering a sale, Ms. Richardson wrote a memo encouraging a colleague to consider paying a "name author" to write a positive story about the collection to dissuade Institute board members from supporting a sale.

Or, she continued, "If you know the right person for whom you can ghost and they will sign their name (maybe in exchange for a comparable article, in reverse, on an occasion when they need it, so that both parties don't feel too slimy), that might be better."

The tale of the Lucas Collection is far from finished. The next chapter is scheduled to unfold in one week, when the BMA files its response.

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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