Art Center lawsuit put off until June

Published 11:06 am Friday, April 8, 2011

At the center of a bitter lawsuit in Freeborn County District Court is the Albert Lea Art Center building, formerly the Ravoli Theater. -- Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Three days into the civil court trial between the Albert Lea Art Center and the owner of the organization’s building, Freeborn County District Court Judge Steve Schwab has ordered that the case be postponed until June.

Don Savelkoul, lawyer for the Albert Lea Art Center, said the case was put off Wednesday to allow some additional work to be done by the lawyers on both sides. A new court date has not been set, but he said it would be in 45 days or more.

Savelkoul said both parties want the case resolved as soon as possible. “Everybody would like to get it finished,” he said.

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It has been postponed at least two times prior.

The Art Center is suing Susanne Crane, owner of the Art Center’s building, 224 S. Broadway Ave., for multiple counts, including foreclosure of her mortgage, breach of lease, rescission of her deed, rescission of her lease and other relief, according to court documents.

The documents state Crane purchased the building Nov. 11, 2005, from the Albert Lea Art Center, for $40,000 with a down payment of $4,000 and the balance of $36,000 would be paid back over 15 years with 6 percent interest. In return, Crane would lease the building back to the Art Center for 99 years at $1 per year. The lawsuit alleges Crane agreed to renovate the building, live there and lease it.

The Art Center is alleging Crane breached the mortgage and failed to make needed repairs to the building as well as pay her portion of assessments and utilities charges.

The lawsuit also alleges other behavior including harassment of the Art Center’s board members, barring use of one of the bathrooms, removing artwork from areas the Art Center was entitled to use, jamming door locks, barring use of common areas, among others.

They also claimed Crane hung security cameras pointed at the Art Center office and hung artwork in the hallway that was offensive, most notably in the middle of a children’s show.

“It turned out to be a very bad marriage,” Albert Lea Art Center President Lu Callstrom testified Wednesday.

Callstrom said the nonprofit would not be asking that their lease be rescinded if things had gone as initially planned. The Art Center has even formed a building search committee to explore options elsewhere.

She described Crane’s relationship with the Art Center as “toxic.”

Crane’s lawyer, Steven Hovey, declined to comment on the case as it was pending. He did call one witness to the stand Wednesday, who testified as another tenant of the building. Chiropractor Michael Christian, who also leases space in the Art Center building, said he has not had any major problems since he has rented from Crane, other than a thermostat, which got resolved.

Christian said after Crane purchased the building, he was told by a few members of the Art Center to continue paying rent to the Art Center, not Crane.

He also noted that though he, too, was limited to one bathroom for him and his clients, he never had a problem with the change.

He also was not offended by any security cameras Crane had in the building, though he noted they weren’t pointed at his area.

He also said that he never thought any of the paintings hanging in the hallway by Crane were offensive.

No other defense witnesses had been called to testify before the case was postponed Wednesday.

The witnesses will continue where they left off when the case resumes.

In a previous interview, Crane said the tensions between she and the Art Center have made it more difficult to continue with her renovation efforts.

Since the tensions began, there have been a couple Art Center board members who have disassociated with the entity, showing support for Crane.

The lawsuit was filed in 2009.