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Creative Differences

Artist-Owned Property Dispute Ends—With One Less Artist

John Ellsberry
DON'T LET THE DOOR HIT YOU ON THE WAY OUT: Bernhard Hildebrandt lost his space in the Station North Arts District's Cork Factory after a legal battle with his former business partners.

By Van Smith | Posted 7/27/2005

Bernhard Hildebrandt made art for a decade at 1601 Guilford Ave., the Cork Factory building, until a few weeks ago. That’s when he rushed home at the end of a month-long artist residency at New York’s Cooper Union to move out of his studio where he’d created works, many of them combining painting and photography, for 13 exhibitions. The 3,200 square feet of well-lit, high-ceilinged former industrial space in the Greenmount West building are no longer Hildebrandt’s to use. He was sued by the company that owns the building—Guilford Avenue LLC, of which he was a shareholding member—and lost. His rights to the studio and his 10.7 percent share of the company were stripped under a court order, and all he’s entitled to in return is about $3,800, which represents his initial investment in the LLC, minus costs.

“Even if I did all the things they allege, and more, they still would have no right to do what they did to me,” Hildebrandt remarked bitterly as he stood on the sidewalk next to the Cork Factory on a recent mid-July afternoon, his move now complete.

Two of the remaining 14 members of the LLC—founders Robert Levine and Dennis Livingston—are breathing sighs of relief that Hildebrandt’s Cork Factory days are over. “One by one,” Livingston explains, “everybody [in the LLC] just gave up and said, ‘This guy is impossible to deal with.’” Levine says that Hildebrandt “brought this on himself.”

Many of the 13 grievances the LLC brought against Hildebrandt in order to roust him from the building have to do with his alleged lack of civility, in violation of company rules. The complainants say that he was quick to resort to threats and angry outbursts during interactions with other members over company matters. In 2003, he sued the company over its vote to purchase a vacant unit. He lost, appealed, and lost on appeal, putting members on the hook for mounting legal fees.

Al Zaruba, an LLC member, recalls that he was the one who initially invited Hildebrandt to move into the building, but he came to regret it.

“A lot of artists could learn from this experience,” Zaruba adds. “Get solid professional advice when putting together a corporation, because we were naive when we set it up, and we have paid dearly for that. The rules for the LLC should be very clearly set forth. Bernhard has managed to expose every single flaw [in the rules]. Like many artists in Baltimore, we are a group of artists who want to secure our future. We are really a lesson on how things can go wrong. We did not want to take it away from Bernhard, but he gave us no choice.”

Baltimore architect Charles Brickbauer, Hildebrandt’s friend and a Bolton Hill landlord, sat in on Guilford Avenue LLC meetings with Hildebrandt, to serve as a witness and advocate, until he was barred from attending further meetings two years ago. “It was obvious to me,” Brickbauer wrote in a January 2005 affidavit, “that they did not want a witness to their unfair treatment of Mr. Hildebrandt and his many important issues,” such as concerns about the building’s safety and the adequacy of the company’s insurance policy, given that some artists also lived in their studios. Ultimately, after ugly confrontations, Hildebrandt took his safety concerns to the Baltimore Fire Department, which in the fall of 2002 issued notices of 11 violations, including a broken fire escape and the lack of a fire-alarm system.

“It was loaded with fire-code violations,” Brickbauer told City Paper in a recent phone call from Florence, Italy. “And they had programs for children in there, large groups gathering, but they wouldn’t even repair the fire escape. I paid $700 for a consultant to examine the problems, but [the LLC members] wouldn’t even look at the report, and then Bernhard got kicked out of meetings, and I was kicked out, and now they’re in control. This is a major disaster for Bernhard because [his share of the LLC] was his only asset. Now he doesn’t have any place to work, and they’re richer 150,000 bucks”—the amount an appraiser said Hildebrant’s unit was worth.

“The main reason I sold my share [in the LLC] was Bernhard,” says Logan Hicks, a former Cork Factory artist now based in Los Angeles. “He eventually fucked up every relationship he had. Even trying to stay impartial about what’s happened now—I just don’t like the guy, and he seemed to have pure and unfiltered hatred for me. Now that I’m away from him, though, I actually feel sorry for him. There are so many colorful personalities in that building, it was bound to happen. He had some relevant points to make, but they became clouded because of his overbearing personality. He was like, ‘Do it now,’ or he was going to make your life hell.”

Hildebrandt maintains that—just as he’s accused of doing—the LLC’s other members flouted the rules. “I was concerned with liability and safety issues, and how LLC money was being spent, and they just kept ignoring me, shutting me out, refusing to talk about it all,” he says. “Sure, I got exercised about it. These were serious issues and they needed to be addressed. They had no right to do what they did. No right at all.”

Guilford Avenue LLC’s lawsuit to revoke Hildebrandt’s membership, filed last summer, was rejected by a District Court judge, but that decision was reversed on appeal to the Circuit Court. Hildebrandt’s petition to the Maryland Court of Appeals to review the Circuit Court ruling was denied in June, but on July 18 he filed a motion for reconsideration, hoping the appellate court would change its mind. Chances are slim at this point that Hildebrandt can win the fight.

Livingston, meanwhile, quips: “I like a good fight, but not this one. This one was just a waste of time.”

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