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Terms of Art: From death row to SoHo

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ArtMany people experience a flood of memories when asked, “Where were you when John Kennedy was shot?” Considerably fewer can respond when asked where they were when Picasso died. Fewer still get goose bumps from seeing the signature of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Enter defense attorney and art dealer Rhonda Long-Sharp, on whose mind such events as Picasso’s death and the Warhol shooting are “indelibly marked.”

Since childhood, Long-Sharp has been an ardent art lover with dreams of building an art collection, “but you couldn’t get out of a bad economic environment with your love for art,” she says. So, she resolved to “become some great street lawyer that was going to even the odds, but the love for art was always there.” As with Basquiat’s tragically short life, she is also a reluctant authority on other lives cut short – those of crime victims and their accused killers.

In law school, Long-Sharp was introduced to capital cases by her mentor. In their first case together, the evidence against the accused was unreliable, and eventually, the charges were dismissed. She recalls that as a hollow “victory,” because by then the accused’s wife had divorced him and taken their children, and the victim’s family was doubly devastated to learn that the man they had believed would account for their loved one’s death was free and that the crime remained unsolved. Long-Sharp says she learned that “we can get it right ultimately, but the cost to people – even when we do get it right – is enormous.”

As chief deputy state public defender, Long-Sharp was instrumental in creating the Capital Unit – a team of lawyers handling capital murder cases. She transitioned to private practice, and with her colleague, Monica Foster, has since handled countless capital cases. Her practice was fraught with typically long hours and interminable research, coupled with the intense stress of trying to save the client’s life. It is grueling work, she explains, to humanize people whom society has deemed monsters.
 

art2-15col.jpg Attorney Rhonda Long-Sharp applies her knowledge of criminal law to analyzing art. (Photo submitted)

Through constant research and analysis, reading treatises and vetting experts, her job, she said, was “to know more about how that person got to a place in life where they could kill – if they [killed] – than they [knew]. A schizophrenic cannot explain to me why there was acute psychosis that led up to [the killing]. A Vietnam vet with PTSD probably does not know his or her triggers. I have to know all those things [to] explain … how that person got to that place in life, because a jury or a judge needs to know that in order to make a decision.”

It is an unenviable position, standing between your client and death, and that burden can be heavy. “At some point, it just gets to you. You spend days on death row with people who are just sitting there waiting on someone to kill them,” Long-Sharp said. She explains that “[a]s a lawyer, you take someone’s problem and become responsible for seeing that some modicum of justice is done. The more you do it and the more you see things, it’s more difficult to let your mind go. When I couldn’t turn my mind off, art was the thing – God, family, and art.”

For years, Long-Sharp has collected art books, taken art classes, and consumed art history voraciously. She muses that after her marriage (“a union of school loans”), “There was no way that we were going to be buying fine art anytime soon. But I had an art fund.” After dispatching their student loans, Long-Sharp and her husband bought their first art series, which included “this Salvador Dali piece that gave me chills,” she said. “I had in my house something that [he] had touched, [something] that his signature was on. It would stop me in my tracks, I would look at it, and my mind would clear.”
 

art-1col Long-Sharp opened a gallery in Indianapolis and has plans for galleries in Detroit and New York. (Photo submitted)

The serenity was short-lived, however, because doubts arose regarding its authenticity. So, as with her cases, she interviewed experts, conducted exhaustive research, and painstakingly confirmed her suspicions. She recounts that “after some fuss, the Dali is no longer in my home, is no longer for sale anywhere, and I was made whole, as much as one can be …” She “looked at everything suspiciously” after that disillusioning experience, which momentarily robbed her of her refuge.

Long-Sharp began to take a “CSI-approach” to art, analyzing instead of appreciating it. After the shock wore off, she resolved to buy only from “the Ward and June Cleaver of the art business.”

Subsequently, Long-Sharp suffered a serious injury and underwent multiple surgeries, followed by her mother’s death. Admittedly defeated, she remembers how she resisted when her family encouraged her to “Go be June,” and to become the art dealer she was seeking. She relented, and today, Long-Sharp is the proprietor of the flourishing Indy Contemporary and ModernMasters Fine Art & Brokerage companies. Indy Contemporary features the works of Indianapolis-based artists, dubbed “regional masters” by Long-Sharp; and MMFAB archives fine art by Picasso, Warhol, Dali, Basquiat and others. The Long-Sharp-Curis gallery opens in Detroit in mid-September; another gallery is being developed in SoHo, New York; and the Museum of Modern Art recently acquired a Picasso from her and featured the piece in a MoMA publication.

Long-Sharp maintains that similarities can be found between legal practice and being an art dealer. Both, she says, are inherently creative positions. “I handled cases after the client was already on death row, why would I want to do things the same way as [the attorney] before me?” she asks. As an art dealer, she has earned a reputation for the heavy analytical lifting she performs to establish the legitimacy of her pieces. Her evolution is marked by humble beginnings, closely held dreams and dreams deferred, hard work, hope, loss, and fulfillment. Gratifying indeed, she says, and at its worst, “No one dies at the end of the day.”•

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Wandini Riggins is an associate in the Indianapolis firm of Lewis Wagner LLP.  She concentrates her practice in the areas of insurance bad faith disputes and insurance coverage defense. She can be reached at wriggins@lewiswagner.com. The recurring feature “Terms of Art,” shines a spotlight on local practitioners and their respective artistic interests. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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  1. What is the one thing the Hoosier legal status quo hates more than a whistleblower? A lawyer whistleblower taking on the system man to man. That must never be rewarded, must always, always, always be punished, lest the whole rotten tree be felled.

  2. I want to post this to keep this tread alive and hope more of David's former clients might come forward. In my case, this coward of a man represented me from June 2014 for a couple of months before I fired him. I knew something was wrong when he blatantly lied about what he had advised me in my contentious and unfortunate divorce trial. His impact on the proceedings cast a very long shadow and continues to impact me after a lengthy 19 month divorce. I would join a class action suit.

  3. The dispute in LB Indiana regarding lake front property rights is typical of most beach communities along our Great Lakes. Simply put, communication to non owners when visiting the lakefront would be beneficial. The Great Lakes are designated navigational waters (including shorelines). The high-water mark signifies the area one is able to navigate. This means you can walk, run, skip, etc. along the shores. You can't however loiter, camp, sunbath in front of someones property. Informational signs may be helpful to owners and visitors. Our Great Lakes are a treasure that should be enjoyed by all. PS We should all be concerned that the Long Beach, Indiana community is on septic systems.

  4. Dear Fan, let me help you correct the title to your post. "ACLU is [Left] most of the time" will render it accurate. Just google it if you doubt that I am, err, "right" about this: "By the mid-1930s, Roger Nash Baldwin had carved out a well-established reputation as America’s foremost civil libertarian. He was, at the same time, one of the nation’s leading figures in left-of-center circles. Founder and long time director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Baldwin was a firm Popular Fronter who believed that forces on the left side of the political spectrum should unite to ward off the threat posed by right-wing aggressors and to advance progressive causes. Baldwin’s expansive civil liberties perspective, coupled with his determined belief in the need for sweeping socioeconomic change, sometimes resulted in contradictory and controversial pronouncements. That made him something of a lightning rod for those who painted the ACLU with a red brush." http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/roger-baldwin-2/ "[George Soros underwrites the ACLU' which It supports open borders, has rushed to the defense of suspected terrorists and their abettors, and appointed former New Left terrorist Bernardine Dohrn to its Advisory Board." http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/viewSubCategory.asp?id=1237 "The creation of non-profit law firms ushered in an era of progressive public interest firms modeled after already established like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ("NAACP") and the American Civil Liberties Union ("ACLU") to advance progressive causes from the environmental protection to consumer advocacy." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cause_lawyering

  5. Mr. Foltz: Your comment that the ACLU is "one of the most wicked and evil organizations in existence today" clearly shows you have no real understanding of what the ACLU does for Americans. The fact that the state is paying out so much in legal fees to the ACLU is clear evidence the ACLU is doing something right, defending all of us from laws that are unconstitutional. The ACLU is the single largest advocacy group for the US Constitution. Every single citizen of the United States owes some level of debt to the ACLU for defending our rights.

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