Lucas judge took 'the bull by the horns' Art: With opponents deadlocked, mediators frustrated and the governor running out of patience, Joseph Kaplan steered parties toward the deal that saved the collection.

June 11, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

In Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan's chambers in early May, intense negotiating over the sale of Baltimore's renowned Lucas art collection was taking place.

Representatives of the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery were sequestered in his small inner office. Their opponents in court -- from the Maryland Institute, College of Art -- were in the adjoining conference room.

The judge was in the middle.

After 17 months of bitter legal jousting over the future of the art works, it had come to this: Several community leaders had exhausted themselves trying to mediate the dispute. The governor, who had offered as much as $4.25 million toward purchase of the art collection to prevent it from ever leaving the state, was running out of patience. And the trial was scheduled to begin May 13.

"I decided that I had to take the bull by the horns," says Kaplan, administrative judge for the city circuit court. "So I called them all in and we began the negotiations in earnest."

On the morning of June 5, three of the city's largest cultural institutions signed an agreement designed to keep the artworks in Baltimore forever.

The document represents the end of a dispute over the future of the Lucas Collection that had become an increasingly divisive wedge in the city's cultural circles. The points of contention were simple: The institute wanted to sell its art collection. The two museums, which had housed and cared for it for more than six decades, adamantly opposed the sale.

Under its terms, the institute will sell the Lucas Collection to the museums to be held in trust for the citizens of Maryland in perpetuity. In return, the museums will pay the institute $8.5 million by Oct. 25. Half of that amount will be paid for by the state over a period of years.

In addition, both sides agreed not to talk about the terms of the settlement.

Crafting an agreement that satisfied the administrations of the art college and the two museums took scores of grueling meetings, hundreds of phone calls and faxes. And it took the combined persuasive powers of at least two heads of charitable organizations, the president of a symphony, a civic-minded judge and the governor.

The talks were not of the relaxed backroom variety. "It was much more meetings in someone's office or a meeting by phone. To keep the thing going you have to keep people talking. There was an awful lot of conversation: 'So and so changed his position this much, what do you think?' Or, 'Hell's freezing over and your legal bills are running and why don't you reconsider?' " says Edward K. Dunn Jr., who worked to mediate the settlement.

"It was not casual. It was intense."

Sale discussed since 1989

The legal dispute began in January 1995, when the Maryland Institute asked the court to declare that it had the right to sell its vast art collection.

Amassed by Baltimore native George Lucas, the collection includes thousands of prints, paintings and sculptures by such artists as Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Eugene Delacroix. Upon his death in 1909, Lucas bequeathed his art to Henry Walters; one year later, Walters gave it to the institute. In 1933, the bulk of the art was placed on loan to the BMA. Several years later, a few pieces were lent to the Walters.

To the institute, the art was a gift, to use, its administrators say, as they saw fit. At least since 1989, they had discussed selling it and using the money to better the college. As Robert Shelton, chairman of the board, explained last year: "We believe it is our fiduciary responsibility to use this -- and every other asset -- to further the educational mission of the institute."

To the museums, which housed and maintained the collection for 63 years, the idea of a sale was abhorrent. Arnold Lehman, director of the BMA, last year likened the loss of the collection to having "one of the legs of this community kicked out from under it."

In April, the BMA and the Walters jointly filed a response and counterclaim contesting the institute's right to sell any of the artworks. They argued that when it accepted the collection, the institute also accepted responsibility for keeping it in trust for the public. Even if the court allowed the works to be sold, the museums said, the institute should not profit because public money has been used to maintain the collection.

The shots fired in court were heard around the state.

In Annapolis, on the night after the institute's motion was filed, a woman named Frances Glendening turned to her husband and said, "Can't you do something?"

In Baltimore, civic leaders began to worry that the dispute would cause irreparable damage to the arts community. Dunn and Calman J. Zamoiski Jr., board chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Baltimore Community Foundation, privately offered their talents as referees. Other community leaders, too, volunteered to help. All were rebuffed.

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