John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Ringling Museum Donor Sues Institution for Refund of Millions

Helga Wall-Apelt, a donor who pledged more than $8 million to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art since 2006, is suing the institution for a breach in contract and is demanding that millions of dollars be refunded to her, Lennie Bennett of the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Wall-Apelt promised $4 million in support of plans for a new Asian art wing, $4 million for the museum’s endowment, and her own collection of over 1,000 works of Asian art. The retired physician said that the donations to the Florida State University–owned museum were supposed to be matched by the state.

In December 2007, Wall-Apelt gave the museum $6.1 million to start construction. Due to issues with the budget, the state froze the matching funds and the project was eventually put on hold in 2008 so that other fundraising could occur. Between 2008 and 2011, Wall-Apelt remained engaged with the museum staff. She attended trustee meetings, discussions with the architect, and agreed upon two new timelines for the project.

In 2013, the institution received a notice of default from Wall-Apelt, stating that it failed to obtain matching funds, finish construction on the agreed upon timeline, exhibit her collection, and hire a curator of Asian art. She also alleged that the organization misused funds.

Steven High, director of the Ringling, said that Wall-Apelt filed a lawsuit four days after the museum broke ground on the Asian art center in January 2014. The institution managed to come up with the rest of the money to cover the cost of the venue from FSU, the FSU foundation, and the Ringling, but the state funds still remain frozen. High said the museum tried to resolve the issues detailed in the complaint with her attorney, but an agreement could not be reached.

The 2014 complaint reads: “Defendants, from the outset, took advantage of Plaintiff’s good will and her passion for providing the community with a resource devoted to Asian art. They took all her artworks and the majority of the resources she has for living the remainder of her life on this earth. They made promises and statements, which they have breached, and to this day, eight years later, they have not built this Asian wing.”

After reclaiming her art collection from the museum, Wall-Apelt tried to sell the whole lot of it at auction in 2015, and raised nearly $2 million. The new center for Asian art opened in May 2016. “None of it made sense,” High said. “It was her dream. And we’ve done it.”