Irate artists tell gallery owner: Show us our money

Suits against Angelfall's Albert seek payment for works sold

September 01, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

J. Hollis B. Albert III had a vision of creating an arts colony in working-class Remington in North Baltimore, an unlikely location for an arts venue.

He opened the Angelfall Studios gallery in 2002, refurbishing an old German church, putting in a cafe and providing a sales outlet for local artists. But two years later, the future of that arts community could be fading.

Lawsuits filed by artists yesterday and last week allege that Albert sold their work at Angelfall and never gave them the money they were owed. Also, an architect who said he did work for the building has filed a lawsuit over unpaid bills.

"It's painful being an artist and getting ripped off," said sculptor Marcia Wolfson Ray, who said the gallery owes her $325 from a May show. "In a way it's despicable. They're preying on people who have a hard-enough time as it is. I work my job as a teacher so I can have enough money to do my art."

Angelfall's debt to the artists is estimated at about $9,000, and the bill from the architect is for $2,600.

Albert insisted that Angelfall, which was closed last month because of sluggish business, will reopen next week and that everyone will get paid.

"It's really not that much money," he said yesterday about the debt.

But the artists, some of whom had never previously showed their work in a gallery, said Albert and his staff breached their written contracts by not paying within 30 days, then avoiding their calls.

Painter Sandra Dietzel, who is also a pediatric nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, filed a claim against Albert in District Court last week for $1,239.62.

That is the money she said she is owed for her five pieces that were sold in May, plus lawyer's fees.

One of six artists featured in the May show, Dietzel sold four oil-on-linen paintings and one drawing. It was her first gallery show, and she said it never occurred to her she wouldn't get paid for her work.

"I was so excited. This was my American Idol moment," Dietzel said of the exhibit. "I sold five pieces, and I didn't get paid for them. They refused to call me or e-mail me. It left a bitter taste in my mouth."

Artist Richard Sober filed his suit yesterday. He said he has been showing his paintings in galleries for 25 years and has never had a problem getting paid. He displayed his work in the show that also included Dietzel's.

Sober, who works in the library of the Johns Hopkins University, filed the claim in District Court yesterday for $700, the cost of two of his pieces, minus the gallery's 35 percent commission. "I've showed in some pretty nice galleries around the world, and a handshake was always enough to ensure I'd get paid," Sober said.

Another artist who was in the show, Pat Halle, said Angelfall owes her about $340 for three pieces of clay pottery that were sold.

"We've been giving him a lot of time," said Halle, who is considering filing a claim this week. "I keep dropping by, but I can't find him or get in touch with him. I hear they are having financial trouble."

An e-mail from the gallery dated Aug. 19 was sent to a list of "artists, friends and supporters of Angelfall Studios" saying that the gallery's future is on shaky ground.

"Due to slow attendance over this past year, particularly this summer, we will be closing the gallery and cafe until just after the Labor Day weekend, at which point we will be re-evaluating the future of Angelfall Studios," it read.

The e-mail also said that "the financial support of the cafe and of our featured artists has been minimal." It ended with an uncertain send-off: "We hope to return after Labor Day with good news!"

Albert contended that the e-mail should have said the gallery will reopen Sept. 9. He said the artists will be paid shortly after that date but would not specify when.

"I've told the artists they're going to get paid, and they're going to get paid," he said. "It's that simple. My word is my word."

Albert, who served for eight years on a civilian board that oversees the city's Fire Department, is the former president of Operators Energy Services, which sold heating oil and natural gas in Maryland.

He ventured into the gallery world a few years ago because, he said, he loves art. Now, he is critical of the Baltimore community, which he said has not been supportive enough of his studio.

"People tell us it is one of the nicest galleries in Baltimore," Albert said. "But everyone would come in for free wine and hors d'oeuvres and then walk out."

Some of the artists said they are not sympathetic about the gallery's financial woes.

"It's like a bad dream," said Sober.

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