The allegation that Michael Sartisky is an art thief cannot be allowed to stand.
That it is a lie is apparent from the very lawsuit the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities filed against him. The LEH not only accuses Sartisky of running off with its pictures but depicts him as a malingerer — another demonstrable falsehood. The LEH is apparently unable to understand its own policies and contracts.
To put my cards on the table, I have known Sartisky for years. But it is not out of friendship that I cry foul on the LEH. Nobody should be subject to such calumnies as were reported against him last week in both New Orleans papers.
They come in response to Sartisky’s own lawsuit, filed last year, in which he claimed he was wrongfully dismissed after more than 30 years as the LEH’s director. If this is the best the LEH can do, Sartisky should clean up.
LEH attorney Tracy Kern declined to comment. That is what convention demands when litigation is pending, but on this occasion, it offers a handy excuse to avoid defending the absolutely indefensible.
Sartisky, according to the lawsuit, retains 15 pictures, worth about $100,000, that belong to the LEH. In support of that charge, the LEH cites its own rules, which make it perfectly clear that the pictures are his property.
Sartisky bought the pictures over several years from the fringe benefit account that is a part of the compensation package for all full-time LEH employees. LEH rules spell out various purposes for which the money can be spent, including life insurance, sabbatical travel, day care, home Internet and the purchase of “Louisiana art on public display such as in LEH offices.”
Obviously, once the money has been spent for any approved reason, the LEH can have no claim on it; otherwise, there would be no benefit at all. Any LEH employee who takes a fancy to a Louisiana picture on public display anywhere can dip into his fringe benefit account, buy it and hang it on the wall of his living room.
“But,” the LEH lawsuit solemnly avers, “these artworks are not on public display within a space owned or operated by the LEH or otherwise in the LEH’s possession.”
Of course not. The lawsuit just got through quoting its rule that says the money that paid for them was provided for Sartisky’s personal use. Then it proceeds to contend that the LEH is “entitled to the return” of the pictures. Don’t these people even read their own stuff?
Just as laughable is the lawsuit’s claim that Sartisky, over a two-year period, was out of the office without permission for 140 days and “providing no services for the LEH.” In fact, he was in North Carolina, where, with his board’s blessing, he did all his writing after selling his home in New Orleans. When working at the LEH office, he lived in a rented condo.
Sartisky is not universally loved — LEH staff members were rather glad he was often not around — but nobody who ever worked with him would call him lazy. No testimonials are needed to give the lie, however, to the charge that Sartisky neglected his contractual obligations. A glance at his published work will suffice.
During the period when he was allegedly “providing no services,” he was doing exactly what he was paid for. He put together a 500-page bicentennial history of Louisiana art and wrote hundreds of entries in a digital encyclopedia and dozens of articles in the “Cultural Vistas” magazine. Such an output would have been difficult to achieve amid the distractions of the office.
The LEH’s last complaint is that Sartisky fiddled his expenses to the tune of $10,000, and we must wait to see what evidence exists to support it. Sartisky not only denies any improper charges but says he is mightily offended, after donating more than $170,000 to the LEH out of his own pocket, to be accused of petty theft.
Sartisky built the LEH more or less from scratch into a major cultural force, but that does not mean his summary dismissal was unjustified. The reasons have never been publicly explained, however, and Sartisky is seeking damages for breach of contract.
Attorneys will sometimes advise that the best response to a lawsuit is a countersuit. Maybe that is what has happened here, and there is no knowing which side is right on the termination issue. But what we can say for sure is that the LEH suit is pure character assassination. However his lawsuit plays out, Sartisky must be sorry to see his old outfit reduced to this.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.