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Mystic Museum of Art is suing Groton over its tax bill

The Mystic Museum of Art has a litigation mess on its hands, fighting in two different legal venues over what it once called the largest charitable gift in its history, and I have no sympathy, given that the problems are of its own making.

On the one hand, the museum is trying to obtain clear legal title to a gracious house overlooking the Mystic River that artist Harvey Fuller, a decades-long member of the Mystic Art Association, since renamed the Mystic Museum of Art, gave to the organization.

In announcing the gift in 2013, both Fuller and the museum said in an elaborate announcement that the Fuller house would become a residential retreat for visiting artists.

Fuller moved out soon after signing over the deed for the property on Bindloss Road to the museum. He died in 2017, after living in Waterford for a number of years with a woman he paid for his care.

His daughter, Jancis Fuller, serving a prison term related to charges she fired shots at a judge's house near the family home on Bindloss Road, has continued a legal battle in Probate Court challenging her father's gift to the museum.

Meanwhile, the museum has filed a Superior Court lawsuit that challenges decisions by the town's tax assessor and Board of Assessment Appeals that the museum has not used the Fuller house for programming that would make it tax exempt.

Indeed, the museum never tried to establish the artist-in-residence program it promised at the time it accepted the gift, eventually saying publicly it didn't have the money to do so.

Curiously, though, one of the arguments made by the museum in its tax lawsuit is that the house was used for an artist-in-residence program because Fuller was living there after his gift. But he didn't continue to live there full time, and the legal claim makes a mockery of the museum's original promise to use his gift to establish a genuine residential program for visiting artists.

The museum put the property on the market in late 2018, asking $628,000 — more than the value the town is taxing it at — and found a buyer. The deal fell apart, though, with Jancis Fuller's continuing fight from prison over her father's donation casting a cloud on the title of the house.

The Groton tax collector told me this week the museum owes $68,000 in back taxes.

I discovered the museum's lawsuit against the town this week after looking into neighbors' complaints about the unsightly condition of the abandoned house, peeling paint, rotting trim and overgrown landscaping.

Susan Fisher, the museum executive director, remarkably said she could not answer any questions about the tax status of the property.

"That's not in my wheelhouse," she said.

Wow. An outstanding tax bill of $68,000 and a lawsuit by the museum against the town over the tax status of the largest gift in the organization's history is not in the executive director's wheelhouse.

What is, I wonder?

The great injustice here is that the museum solicited the gift of the house for an artist residency program it promised the donor and the public, making a public announcement at the time, but never made any effort to establish such a program.

Instead, the museum tried to cash out.

Fuller's lawyer told a probate court judge in a 2015 competency hearing that Fuller was in sound mind when he signed over the property to the museum against his advice. Apparently, Fuller believed the house would be used the way he had been promised.

"If anyone abused Harvey, it was the Mystic Art Association, who started insisting and demanding that he give them the house," attorney Eugene Cushman told Probate Judge Mathew Greene during the 2015 hearing, explaining that the gift was something Fuller had talked about with art association officials for many years.

"They were incredibly rude," Cushman said about the association's demand for the deed at a time Fuller had fallen ill. "I tried to talk Harvey out of it, but he made the decision."

And now the association is boxed in, prevented from cashing out of the property by a legal fight waged from prison, and also fighting the town over a growing tax bill with the bogus argument that it established a promised artist-in-residence program when it has admitted publicly it didn't.

It's not a good look for a local institution that should be trying to be a good neighbor.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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