Artist Robert Indiana poses at his Vinalhaven studio in 2008 with “HOPE,” which he created for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Associated Press/Joel Page

The foundation that served as the primary patron for Robert Indiana over the last 20 years of his life is objecting to efforts to terminate its ability to reproduce his art, particularly his famous “LOVE” image.

A lawyer for the Morgan Art Foundation and its consultant, Simon Salama-Caro, filed a letter Friday with the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, asking the judge to block efforts by the Indiana estate to terminate its licensing agreements with Morgan and accused the estate’s representatives of failing their obligation to uphold Indiana’s legacy.

The effort to terminate Morgan’s rights “is a clear violation of Indiana’s wishes and a clear violation of what he wanted and will undermine his legacy,” said Luke Nikas, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York.

Nikas called the estate’s attempt to restrict Morgan from exercising its rights to reproduce Indiana’s artwork “an effort to destroy Morgan’s reputation, Simon’s reputation and take over the rights that Robert Indiana expressly and exclusively transferred to Morgan.”

Edward P. Boyle, an attorney at Venable LLP in New York who represents the Indiana estate, declined to comment on Friday’s action. The judge in the case has scheduled a courthouse conference for Tuesday morning with lawyers for Morgan and the Indiana estate to settle the issue.

The estate is asking the judge to allow it to amend its previous counterclaims, arguing that any agreements Indiana signed with Morgan expired at his death. It also asked for a declaratory judgment that the termination of agreements does not constitute a breach of contract by the estate, as well as an injunction barring Morgan from pursuing its agreements.

Shown is the Robert Indiana sculpture “LOVE” in John F. Kennedy Plaza, commonly known as Love Park, in Philadelphia, in 2018. Associated Press/Matt Rourke

In his response Friday, Nikas cited two contractual agreements that Indiana signed with Morgan. The first, from April 1999, gave Morgan rights to Indiana’s “LOVE” in perpetuity, and a second agreement, also signed in 1999, gave Morgan the right to produce and fabricate “LOVE” sculptures, also in perpetuity.

Further, Nikas wrote in his letter to the judge, Indiana’s will says that on his death, income and royalties related to those agreements with Morgan would be assigned to the Star of Hope Foundation, which is charged with turning his home on the island of Vinalhaven into a museum.

“No income and royalties would exist to be assigned (under the agreements) if they were terminated upon death,” Nikas said. “There would be no reason to put it in his will. So the estate is not just violating agreements with Morgan, it is also violating the plain terms of Indiana’s will.”

Indiana died at age 89 in his home on Vinalhaven on May 19, 2018, the day after Morgan Art Foundation filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing another of Indiana’s art dealers, Michael McKenzie, and Jamie Thomas, Indiana’s caretaker, of fraud and elder abuse. Indiana also was named in the suit, accused of breach of contract for his dealings with McKenzie. Last fall, Morgan filed a suit against Rockland attorney James Brannan, the lawyer for Indiana’s estate, also alleging breach of contract.

In a phone interview, Nikas criticized the Star of Hope Foundation board for including Thomas as a member, calling it “a highly dysfunctional foundation that the Maine Attorney General should scrutinize.” The five-member board currently has four members, with Thomas filling one seat. Larry Sterrs, a Maine banker and businessman, is the board’s chairman. Other members are Vinalhaven resident and real estate agent Kris Davidson and Patricia King, vice president of Waterville Creates.

Brannan had been on the board, but resigned this week, effective May 2. Brannan, who created the foundation in his role as Indiana’s personal attorney and estate representative, said he resigned from the board because his work associated with the Indiana lawsuits is consuming his time. “I will be passing along all the money and the keys to the foundation, but at this point I am focusing on the litigation,” he said Friday.

Because he stands accused of isolating Indiana and participating in fraud related to Indiana’s art, Thomas’ presence on the Star of Hope Foundation board is controversial. Sterrs said Thomas, who was given power of attorney over Indiana’s affairs in 2016, was on the board at Indiana’s direction, as was Brannan.

Linda Conti, division of consumer protection chief for the Maine Attorney General’s Office, said the state is watching the foundation closely. “My role is to make sure the Star of Hope Foundation is run properly. Whatever money comes out of this estate will go to a foundation that is supposed to be run for the benefit of the public and the people of Maine. Our role is to make sure it functions the way it is supposed to function under state and federal processes,” Conti said.

Vinalhaven resident Chuck Clapham rides his bike past Robert Indiana’s Vinalhaven home, the former Odd Fellows Hall named Star of Hope, in 2018. Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

She said the nature of the legal matters involving Indiana are complex and could be costly to the estate, and urged the sides to work toward a resolution. “It’s always in the best interest of the charity if litigation settles and there’s a lot of money left over for the charity to do its work rather than pay attorney fees. But the litigation preceded the charity. He just happened to die right after he was sued,” she said.

“The charity is hanging out there waiting for it to be resolved. My position is, ‘Let’s get this resolved,’ but there is not a lot I can do,” she said.

Nikas said there have been “occasional discussions about a resolution,” but a settlement is not imminent. “Our rights under these contracts are clear. We have overwhelming evidence to support the allegations we’ve made,” he said. “But we’re always open to a settlement that would be in the best interest of Robert Indiana’s legacy.”

Brannan said settlement negotiations that failed last fall were “frustrating and expensive. I just don’t see how this can be settled. I have directed my attorneys to prepare for trial and if there is an offer that wants to be made, it should be sent in writing and I will review it and decide how to respond to it.”

Sterrs, who chairs the board of Camden National Bank, said the foundation is just beginning its work. Members have begun meeting by phone and will begin working in earnest this spring and summer. Among the first tasks is engaging engineers and architects to assess the condition of the Star of Hope and make a plan for its restoration.

Any plan will be contingent on the town signing off on the project, because it will require a zoning change and approval of the island Planning Board. The process of requesting a zoning change could begin this year, Sterrs said.

The Star of Hope Foundation is not party to the litigation, though its resources are tied to the outcome to the settlement of Indiana’s estate. Nonetheless, Sterrs said there are “enough assets at the foundation right now to begin our work,” though he declined to say how much. “There’s a checking account with funds in it and two investment accounts that I believe Mr. Indiana made donations to over time.”

He also pledged transparency to residents of the island and the state. “I prioritize community engagement. It’s important to have good, transparent communication with the island, the coast of Maine and all of Maine. We are going to tell them what we know when we know, and communicate our plans and find out their desires. This will be a collaborative effort,” he said.

Conti asked Sterrs to get involved in the Star of Hope Foundation because of his role in navigating a financial crisis at the Good Will-Hinckley school earlier this decade. Sterrs said that logic appealed to him, because of the similarities between the Good Will-Hinckley project and the Star of Hope, he said.

“When Good Will-Hinckley was unable to move forward, it was caused by a particular revenue problem, but at the end of the day, it was solved by people who cared and came together to solve the problem,” Sterrs said. “I did due diligence with the Star of Hope and thought I could be helpful in getting the foundation’s legs on the ground and get it moving forward.

“My plan is to animate and activate the foundation. We have good documentation about (Indiana’s) intent. We know what he wanted to accomplish.”

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