Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Asian Art Hangs in Legal Limbo

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Asian Art Hangs in Legal Limbo

Article excerpt

Ringling begins expansion, but may not get collection that sparked the plan

SARASOTA

Construction of the Helga Wall-Apelt Center for Asian Art began early this year, and the newest addition to the Ringling museum campus is scheduled to open its doors in January of 2016.

But unless a lawsuit by its benefactor can be resolved, it will do so without the valuable collection of Asian art that was the impetus for Wall-Apelt's gift, believed to be one of the largest ever received by the museum.

In May, Wall-Apelt, a 74-year old German native and former Ringling board member, filed the lawsuit against The Ringling, Florida State University -- it owns the museum -- and the FSU Foundation, its fundraising arm. The suit claims the three entities have failed to comply with the terms of a 2006 gift agreement in which she pledged her $30 million Asian art collection, millions of dollars in ongoing support and the remainder of her considerable estate upon her death.

Though there are dozens of legal issues involved, the heart of the disagreement is Wall-Apelt's outrage that her dream of a public showcase for the extensive collection -- roughly 1,700 pieces, including jades, bronzes, stone sculptures and photographs -- has yet to materialize.

"You have a very well-intentioned member of the Sarasota community trying to do something very philanthropic," said Frank Rodriguez, a member of Wall-Apelt's legal team. "Here we are, almost nine years later, and she is out $6 million and the use of the collection and what does she have to show for it?"

Wall-Apelt declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Ringling insists it has complied with the terms of an agreement that has twice been amended.

"From our perspective, we have met every element of this gift agreement," said Steven High, executive director of The Ringling. "We feel very confident we've shown due diligence and done everything we said we would do."

Wall-Apelt, a former internist and radiologist, began assembling the collection at age 15 after receiving a bronze Buddhist statue left to her by her father, a prosperous German Jewish doctor who fled Switzerland with his family when the Nazis came to power. It was the beginning of her interest in Eastern medicine, and in the role Asian art could play in healing.

In 2000, Wall-Apelt displayed a portion of the collection, gathered mostly during her medical career in Germany, at a small museum of Asian art she'd founded on South Washington Boulevard. She intended to build a larger space on property she owned on U.S. 41, but after conferring with The Ringling's then-director, John Wetenhall, decided the museum could provide a wider audience.

A year after signing the original gift agreement in 2006, at the museum's request, Wall-Apelt wrote a check for $4.1 million toward construction of the center, which was to be met by matching state funds. At the same time, she wrote an additional check for $2 million, for the hiring of an Asian art curator.

When state funds proved unavailable, Wall-Apelt accepted an amendment to the agreement allowing the museum an additional three years to obtain the matching funds.

In 2011 -- nearly a year after that deadline had passed -- with state funds were still unavailable, Wall-Apelt agreed to accept matching funds the museum said it had assembled from other sources within the university.

This second amendment set out a timetable for construction of the center: it would begin in November of 2012 and finish in the spring of 2014.

Another stipulation of the gift was that Wall-Apelt's collection would be displayed "as space permits" elsewhere in the museum until the new wing was completed. A wooden sculpture of a Buddhist divinity from the collection was the centerpiece of an exhibit in 2007, several jade pieces were displayed in the Searing Galleries in 2011 and a number of photographs were part of exhibits in 2013 and 2014. …

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