Works held by August Wilson Center will be appraised amid liquidation

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, 11:36 p.m.

Internationally renowned Pittsburgh sculptor Thaddeus Mosley gave his time and talent to help the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

Now, three of his sculptures are among artwork that court-appointed receiver Judith K. Fitzgerald is preparing for appraisal as she works to sell the center and liquidate its assets to pay an estimated $9.5 million to $10 million in debts, including $7.06 million in a mortgage with Dollar Bank.

The fate of the center's art collection is one of many unanswered questions involving the center.

“The piece I gave, I gave with the idea that it would help in a small way. I had a value of $25,000 on it, and I was hoping (the center) would sell it,” Mosley said. “I told them to dispose of it, keep it, sell it or auction it off, but they never did. I'm only sad that it would be sold to pay debts rather than operating costs.”

Mosley, 87, a North Side artist who works primarily in wood and metal, once served on the center's board and agreed to exhibit four of his works there shortly after the facility opened in 2009. Patrons purchased and donated two Mosley sculptures to the center, and Mosley donated another in lieu of a financial contribution.

Fitzgerald, a retired bankruptcy court judge, won't say exactly what is in the center's art collection. Court documents do not include an art inventory for the gleaming, $40 million center on Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

Nor will she discuss the claims of ToonSeum, a nearby museum whose director recently filed a complaint with the attorney general's office that Fitzgerald is holding a collection of rare cartoon art, given to the center on long-term loan with verbal understanding it would be returned if not displayed annually.

This week, Common Pleas Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole granted Fitzgerald permission to begin liquidating center assets. He said she would have to come to him for final approval to sell the building.

Asked about art holdings, Fitzgerald responded, “All I can say is we are making arrangements to get what is here appraised.”

Jack Owen, a Downtown attorney who specializes in nonprofit groups, said artwork loaned to the center could be exempt from sale.

“You'd have to have an agreement that spells out what the deal is. People do that all the time. They lend it for three months and get it back. A good agreement will spell that out. Who knows if the August Wilson Center spelled that out?” Owen said.

He said if artwork owners can prove their art was on loan, then it can't be sold to pay the center's bills.

Fiber artist Tina Brewer of Homewood exhibited at the August Wilson Center several times but said none of her work became part of any permanent collection. She questions whether the center has much art.

“It was my understanding that there wasn't going to be a permanent collection. They felt the Carnegie and the History Center had that covered,” Brewer said.

Mosley doesn't begrudge what Fitzgerald is doing.

“People think the August Wilson Center went down on false premises, but there is no museum or art institution in the country that is going to sell enough tickets to keep an institution afloat. The Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) would close without a patron,” Mosley said.

Like Mosley, Joseph Wos, executive director of ToonSeum, had high hopes for the center.

The small cartoon museum — one of three in the United States devoted to cartoon art — opened across Liberty Avenue from the center a few weeks after the center's grand opening.

Wos said ToonSeum put an exhibition on extended loan to the center in 2010. In a letter to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, Wos said the exhibition on loan celebrated a long-forgotten civil rights comic and “featured a timeline of the civil rights movement and the comic, along with large-scale reproductions of the entire comic.”

The center exhibited the collection in 2011 but did not return it, Wos said. Now, he is concerned that the collection, which he valued at $3,000 to $3,500, might be sold.

“There was no paperwork related to this, though that was the understanding,” Wos told Kane.

He is angry that a second collection of cartoon art the ToonSeum gave the August Wilson Center may go on the auction block. He estimated the “Fat Albert collection of 19 pieces, fully framed,” has a value of about $5,000. More important, the cartoon, based on a character made famous by comedian Bill Cosby, was produced by Pittsburgh native Lou Scheimer's Filmation Studios.

“It is a piece of Pittsburgh history,” Wos said.

Kane spokesman Joe Peters said she may seek court guidance on any works of art whose ownership is in question.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or Staff writer Bill Zlatos contributed to this report.

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