Ringling Museum in legal battle over $6 million donation

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Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2014 4:47 pm

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Ringling Museum of Art is in a legal battle with a multimillion dollar donor. The fight is over a gift, the largest ever received by the Ringling Museum and Florida State University, which owns the museum. Now many in the art community are wondering if this legal rift will put the breaks on the museum’s expansion.

Construction on the proposed Center for Asian Art began back in December, but now its primary donor, Helga Wall-Apelt, is asking for the return of her art collection and her $6 million contribution.

The vision of a center for Asian art in the Ringling Museum has been in the works since 2006, but it took about 8 years and two amendments to a contract for construction to finally begin.

"It's unfortunate,” says Steven High, director of the Ringling Museum. “Essentially, it comes down to [Wall-Apelt] feels that we have not held true to the gift agreement."

According to legal documents, the original agreement stated that the Ringling Museum, Florida State University and the Florida State University Foundation would match $4.1 million of Wall-Apelt's $6 million donation by December of 2010. According to Ringling, after the creation of a second amendment to the original gift agreement, agreed to by all entities and the donor, the $4.1 million was matched by the FSU Foundation and the Ringling Museum of Art.

We spoke with Wall-Apelt’s legal team, which cited the length of time since they made the agreement and the way her donation has been handled as reasons for filing the lawsuit.

Ringling has agreed to return Wall-Apelt's art collection, but the fate of her $6 million contribution remains under litigation. 

From the perspective of the folks at Ringling, however, this is simply a case of all good things taking time.

"It has taken a while, but what happened in between is the recession, and sort of the match for those funds wasn't really secured until 2011," High says.

The plan is to continue the construction of a center, including a pavilion and expansion of the west wing of the art museum.

"We're committed to the project and we've raised the funds to pay for it and the project's under construction," High says.

The center is scheduled to officially open its doors in early 2016.

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