Hundreds of works by William H. Johnson (1901-1970), whose colorful modernist paintings helped broaden interest in African American visual artists, will remain the property of the Smithsonian Institution for now.
Last Friday, a federal judge in New York dismissed a lawsuit brought by Johnson's family seeking the artwork or millions in compensation.
An attorney for the family says it will ask the judge to reconsider her ruling and, if necessary, appeal.
From its initiation last July, the lawsuit pitted Johnson's family, headed by his nephew James H. Johnson, against the government institution and the New York-based Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, which also holds some Johnson works.
In hearings on the matter, both sides agreed that U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley was sympathetic to the family's position and "gave the government a hard time," said Paul J. Hanly Jr., New York counsel for the family. But in the end, Motley decided that the family didn't have a legal leg to stand on.
Johnson, who was born in Florence, S.C., and developed as an artist in Harlem and Europe, was confined to a New York mental institution from 1947 until his death in 1970. In April 1956, a New York State Supreme Court judge granted a court-appointed guardian's petition to "abandon as worthless and of no value, paintings, watercolors and prints belonging to said incompetent person."
A month afterward, the Harmon Foundation, which had long taken an interest in work by African American artists and had honored Johnson with a medal in 1929, took possession of the work and is reported to have spent some time and money restoring it before transferring 1,154 artworks to the Smithsonian in 1967, allegedly without compensation.
In her 14-page opinion, Motley stated that the court-appointed guardian, as well as Johnson's mother, who was still living in South Carolina, were notified in advance of the 1956 hearing in which Johnson's work was deemed worthless. "It is not clear whether Johnson's mother or any other member of Johnson's family was represented by counsel or aided by any informed party during the proceedings," the judge said. "There is no agreement as to what interests, if any, the family had or tried to exercise between 1947 and 1956. On April 30, 1956, the New York State Supreme Court filed an unopposed order granting the petition to abandon the art as worthless."
She concluded that even if the family has legal grounds to challenge the 1956 ruling, her federal court is not the proper venue to challenge a state ruling more than 40 years after the fact.
"We're awfully happy to have this cleared up," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art, which holds Johnson's work. "We were always confident that there was no legal basis for the claim and we're glad the judge agreed."
Broun said that during an initial mediation process ordered by the judge, no offer was made by the Smithsonian to the family to settle the case because, bound by professional guidelines, it holds its collections as a public trust and cannot offer them to private individuals.
"We are simply not able to give away objects to family members or others who may have known or loved the artists where there is no basis for any claim of ownership," Broun said. "You can imagine that with many thousands of artworks by so many different artists there are always family members or friends who might wish they had something by that artist."
She pointed out that in the more than 30 years that the Smithsonian has held Johnson's work, it has mounted four major exhibitions of it, including "William H. Johnson: A Retrospective from the National Museum of American Art," which opened in 1995 and toured in eight cities until 1997. "We really feel he is a major American master, very long unrecognized, and we've worked to research his work and preserve it for the future. We've been in touch with various members of Johnson's family and have valued their cooperation in that research. I hope we can continue to have a good relationship with them."
Hanly said the family is considering its next legal step. Its South Carolina attorney, M. Eugene Gibbs, said the family will ask the judge to reconsider her ruling and allow the lawsuit to proceed by presenting new evidence of a 1947 court order from Oslo, Norway, granting possession of the works to Johnson's mother.
"When you have something that belongs to someone else, they have a right to it," Gibbs said. "We can't steal something, keep it long enough and then say the owner can't take it back. If you or I had stolen something, the police would come and lock us up." CAPTION: Johnson's "Going to Church" (1940-41). He was hospitalized six years later.