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Arts and Culture

The Battle For Control Of Robert Indiana's Artistic Legacy

Pat Wellenbach
Associated Press
Pop artist Robert Indiana, 80, stands on his porch at his home on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, on Thursday, May 14, 2009.

When Vinalhaven resident and celebrated pop artist Robert Indiana died this spring, he left behind $50 million worth of art, and instructions to turn his home into a museum dedicated to his legacy.

All that has become the subject of legal actions hinging on personal relationships Indiana established on Vinalhaven. Freelance journalist Murray Carpenter reported on this for Sunday's New York Times, and he talks with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about what's behind the disputes.

GRATZ: Murray, good morning.

CARPENTER: Good morning, Irwin.

GRATZ: All right - who are the central players in this legal battle?

CARPENTER: Two key figures are Michael McKenzie, who is a printmaker in New York who had a long-standing relationship with Robert Indiana to produce some artwork, and Jamie Thomas, who was Robert Indiana’s caretaker.

Credit Matt Rourke / Associated Press
Shown is the Robert Indiana sculpture "LOVE" in John F. Kennedy Plaza, commonly known as Love Park, in Philadelphia, Monday, May 21, 2018.

GRATZ: What are the arguments in court at the moment?

CARPENTER: His will is being sorted out here in Maine. In court in New York, the questions are whether all of the artwork that Robert Indiana produced in his last few years was legitimately Robert Indiana artwork, or if it was bogus artwork that had been sort of cooked up by Michael McKenzie, and perhaps with the assistance of Jamie Thomas.

GRATZ: What was your sense of Thomas?

CARPENTER: We were unable to - despite repeated efforts - to interview Jamie Thomas. He's a long-term resident of Vinalhaven. He clearly knew Robert Indiana very well. He does not have a background in nonprofit management. So, this nonprofit that was established in Robert Indiana’s will, they’re certainly going to bring on new members to the board, and perhaps they'll have the expertise to develop this museum and to restore the Star of Hope.

GRATZ: Yeah, and the Star of Hope needs a lot of work, does it not?

CARPENTER: The most notable building, you know, of that era remaining in Vinalhaven is the Star of Hope. It's a former Odd Fellows lodge. It's certainly in disrepair.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press
In this Sept. 13, 2014, file photo, fans gather outside "Star of Hope" the residence of artist Robert Indiana on Vinalhaven Island, Maine.

GRATZ: Were there some questions raised about whether or not all of the artwork that was supposed to be in Star of Hope is actually there?

CARPENTER: Jim Brannan, a Rockland attorney who is the executor of Robert Indiana’s will, had someone inventorying and packaging and hauling off for safekeeping the artwork from the Star of Hope. In doing so, it appeared that some artwork that was inventoried several years ago was not in the building.

GRATZ: There were some who claim Robert Indiana alienated himself from others in his last years, but others who say Thomas was controlling access to the artist. Was it clear from your reporting which of those claims is true?

CARPENTER: It wasn't. This was part of what makes this a very tricky story to report. You know, we have some people who were very strongly supportive of Jamie Thomas who said he was simply  - simply doing Robert Indiana's bidding to keep people away. He was notoriously reclusive, even in his earlier years, and certainly increasingly so. Other people alleged that he was really isolating the artist, consciously doing so, locking out old-time acquaintances, business associates, friends, et cetera.

GRATZ: It's in the nature of island communities for a lot of people to know everybody else's business, but also sometimes not to want to talk about it with others. Did you have any particular issues in reporting this story on Vinalhaven?

CARPETNER: It is a very sensitive story. And, you know, I've done a lot of reporting in small towns in Maine, and an island is sort of a small town on steroids. All the elements of small towns in Maine are sort of amplified on an island.

GRATZ: What's ultimately at stake here for Robert Indiana’s legacy?

CARPENTER: I've talked to some people who say, “Well, already the damage has been done” - I mean, you know, by casting shadows over his legacy, this diminishes the artist's reputation. There's also a lot at stake here for Vinalhaven. You know, this is a really significant structure in the middle of town. It was once open to the public. Before Robert Indiana bought the house, there was a drugstore and a news stand on the first floor. A lot of people are really hoping that, if nothing else happens, the building is restored to its former glory and re-opened to the public.

GRATZ: Murray, thank you very much for the time. We appreciate it.

CARPENTER: Thanks for your interest.

This story was originally published Aug. 7, 2018 at 6:43 a.m. ET.