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Many galleries depend on verbal deals made with artists, collectors, and museum officials in order to sell artworks and curate exhibitions. But a new lawsuit shows how quickly those agreements can unravel, threatening the short- and long-term financial sustainability of a long-established gallery.
The co-owners of Santa Fe’s Turner Carroll Gallery are suing art critic Jeff Kelley, alleging that he acted with “oppression, fraud, and malice.” His aim, the gallery claims, was to destroy the gallery’s relationship with his wife, the late Chinese American artist Hung Liu, whose portraits are the subject of a survey that is still traveling the US.
Tyler Atkinson, one of the lawyers retained by the Turner Carroll Gallery, told ARTnews, “It’s a very sad but very necessary case at this point. These plaintiffs have really been left with no recourse.”
The nine allegations in the 14-page complaint, filed on August 29 in the Superior Court of the State of California in Alameda County, include breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, and trade libel.
Gallery co-owners Michael Carroll and Tonya Turner Carroll allege that Kelley and two of his associates, Dorothy Moss and Markus Kager, actively and intentionally stoked animosity against the dealers among their own customer base. According to the lawsuit, this resulted in clients thinking the gallerists were no longer legally authorized to sell Liu’s work.
On Liu’s website and on LinkedIn, Moss is listed as the director of the artist’s estate, while Kager is listed as director of Hung Liu Studio.
Liu, who died in 2021, was known for monumental paintings and illustrations, some of which incorporated ID cards and immigrant papers. Her arduous journey from China to the United States in her mid-30s ended up informing her art, making international headlines in 2019 after the Chinese government prevented a major solo show from going forward at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.
The artist’s career included a teaching position at Mills College, and she was a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in painting.. She died at 73 of causes related to pancreatic cancer just a few days before her first retrospective opened at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The Carrolls’ lawsuit was filed a week after another exhibition of Liu’s work opened at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University.
It is normal for artists and their estates to move from one gallery to another and to argue over sales proceeds. But the lawsuit alleges Kelley, Moss, and Kager went beyond that, destroying its relationships with its other artists, clients, and peers.
“Within weeks,” the lawsuit states, “Kelley’s actions damaged [the Carrolls’] accomplishments, turned the Gallery into a pariah, impaired its position as a respected art dealer, voided many relationships with existing and potential customers, and diminished the value of works plaintiffs had already acquired. Long-time patrons and museum directors severed ties; artists formerly housed or affiliated with the Gallery no longer wanted to have anything to do with it. Plaintiffs also lost out on the profits to which they were entitled under their agreements with Liu and Kelley and, following Liu’s passing, with Kelley.”
The dealers claim that Kelley, Moss, and Kager used social media to “a. affirmatively and systematically [search] for and [contact] every business contact of the Gallery to tell them that the Gallery was offensive, dishonest, and making a mockery of Hung Liu’s legacy; b. affirmatively and systematically [search] for individuals and entities who may have business with the Gallery, and [contact] the same, to spread false information about the nature of the falling out between plaintiffs and defendants.”
According to Atkinson, Turner Carroll was promised Liu’s oil painting No Savior from on High Delivers II (2007), but later discovered that Kelley shipped the gallery a different piece after selling the other work in 2018.
“When you promise somebody something, and they rely on that promise, you have to deliver it,” Atkinson told ARTnews. “If you don’t, then you’re in breach. And that’s what happened here.”
The lawsuit also states that Kelley has banned the Carrolls from writing anything about Liu, despite the fact that they collaborated with the artist and Kelley for 16 years before her death and continued to do so after her passing.
Established in 1991, the Turner Carroll Gallery specializes in international and modern contemporary art. It sells work by artists such as Stephen Hayes, Mildred Howard, Agnes Martin, Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Meow Wolf cofounder Matt King.
Turner Carroll’s CV for Liu states that the gallery organized 11 solo and group exhibitions and that it placed her work with institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the San Jose Museum of Art.
Katherine Wilson-Milne, a lawyer for Kelley, Moss, and Kager, said in an email that the complaint was “an entirely baseless and misleading response to the end of a business relationship and it will be vigorously contested.”