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Widower takes aim at chairman of Pollock-Krasner Foundation

Husband of deceased leader argues in court filings that chairman strong-armed his way into the post

Seated, the late Charles Bergman, who headed the Pollock-Krasner Foundation as chairman and chief executive. Behind him, from left: his husband, Stuart Levy; Janet Spencer; and her husband, Ronald Spencer, who took over as the foundation's chairman and chief executive this year Joseph Fornabaio

Before Charles C. Bergman, the chairman and chief executive of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, died in February, he chose a successor to run the organisation he had led since its inception: Ronald Spencer, a lawyer who had represented the foundation for decades. But in a series of papers filed this week in New York State Surrogate’s Court, Bergman’s widower, Stuart Levy, accuses Spencer and his wife, Janet, of strong-arming Bergman into giving him the job.

The court filings—one of which is 396 pages long—attempt to paint a broad portrait of manipulation by the Spencers. Although Levy’s actual legal challenge centres on disqualifying Ronald and Janet Spencer from serving as executors of Bergman’s estate, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation is described as central to an effort by the Spencers to accrue wealth and influence through their association with its chairman. The foundation, founded in 1985, honours the memory of the artists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner by distributing grants to visual artists.

“What our papers allege is that it was all about control—controlling Charlie’s estate, controlling the Pollock-Krasner Foundation,” says Lori Sullivan, one of Levy’s attorneys at Seward & Kissel. The documents charge: “Ronald and Janet cunningly induced the Decedent to surrender to them control of his estate in order to capitalize on his reputation in the art world and to secure Ronald’s position in the Pollock-Krasner Foundation as the Decedent’s successor.”

Asked for comment, Ronald Spencer said in an email: “Stuart is apparently unhappy about Charlie’s decision in his 2013 will to make me and my wife, Janet, executors of his estate. Charlie, Stuart, Janet and I have been close friends for more than 30 years; Charlie, Janet and I for more than 50. Charlie named me as executor in each of his six prior wills going back to 1985.”

“As for the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the plans for me being Charlie’s successor have been in place for almost 20 years, well-documented and widely known at PKF and to its professional staff, and to Stuart as well.”

Bergman was a major philanthropist—“a titan in the art field,” according to the filings; in addition to running the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, he worked with the New York State Council of the Arts, the Harvard Art Museums and the Aspen Institute, among other organisations. Levy is an art dealer and advisor and former gallery owner; he and Bergman were together for 34 years (and married for almost three).

Spencer is the chair of the art law practice at the New York firm Carter Ledyard & Milburn. His list of clients includes the Salvador Dali Foundation, Storm King Art Center, the estate of Piet Mondrian and the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. In 2004, he edited The Expert Versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts, an anthology of essays published by Oxford University Press.

In an affidavit, Levy credits Bergman with bringing Spencer into the art world by retaining him as counsel at the Pollock-Krasner Foundation around the time of its founding in 1985. “It was Charlie who facilitated Ronnie’s rise as an art and foundation lawyer,” Levy writes. “I believe that Janet and Ronnie saw a friendship with Charlie as something that could benefit them greatly professionally.”

The couples grew closer over the decades: Levy said in an interview that the Spencers “were meant to be our good friends.” However, his affidavit argues that pressure came to bear in the friendship. One incident tells of the Spencers visiting Bergman and Levy at home at a time when Bergman had been having reservations about appointing Ronald Spencer as his successor at the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. According to the filing, the Spencers harangued Bergman about the issue until he relented. In the interview, Levy called it an “incredible Shakespearean living room experience.”

“We were both dumbfounded,” he said.

Ronald Spencer also served as Bergman’s and Levy’s personal lawyer for many years, helping them with estate planning and drawing up wills for both men. Bergman’s final will is the central point of contention in the court filings. Levy and his lawyers claim that Ronald Spencer acted in his own and his wife’s interests rather than those of his client when advising Bergman on his estate. According to the terms of the will, the legal documents say, the Spencers receive bequests and commissions as executors of the estate, and both were appointed to the board of a new Charles Bergman foundation, with Levy as the third member.

The court filings argue that the Spencers plotted to take control of Bergman’s estate to maximise their own financial gain and secure their stature. The papers also assert that it poses legal and ethical problems for a lawyer to draft a will for a client when that lawyer or a member of his family is set to receive a bequest. And they allege that the Spencers concealed this conflict of interest from the court by purposefully not disclosing it on their petition to probate the will.

“In my experience, that is something very egregious, to mislead not only Stuart but the court as well,” says Sullivan.

It is not the first legal fight over an art-related estate that Ronald Spencer has been involved in. Last year, one of the foundations created by the husband-and-wife artist team Arakawa and Madeline Gins (both of whom are deceased) sued another foundation formed by the couple as well the Gins estate over ownership of a major artwork. As a co-executor of the estate and co-director of the foundation being sued, Spencer is named as a defendant, along with Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Gins’s brother. Copies of the papers in that lawsuit, including a transcript of Spencer’s deposition, are attached as an exhibit in the current court filings.

Spencer was also briefly an attorney for Robert Indiana, another artist whose estate has spawned legal feuding, according to an article in the New York Times.

This week’s filings ask the court to intervene solely in the execution of Bergman’s estate. Legal action regarding the Pollock-Krasner Foundation is “beyond the scope of these papers,” Sullivan said, although she added that the attorney general of New York could attempt to seek relief.