Detail of an illustration by Robert Cenedella, “Communist Manifesto No. 42” (1968) (all photos courtesy Robert Cenedella)

On Thursday, two lawyers representing five of the nation’s most influential museums appeared in federal court in Manhattan, where they asked the judge to dismiss an unusual lawsuit by the satirical artist Robert Cenedella. He accuses a “corporate museum cartel” of an “unlawful conspiracy.”

Cenedella, who was the subject of the 2016 documentary Art Bastard, alleges that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the New Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art ignore artists, including himself, who are not represented by a select group of art galleries.

His lawsuit claims that large contemporary art museums violate anti-trust laws, by working with galleries to benefit financially when work by certain artists rise in value. Indeed, a 2015 study by the Art Newspaper found that, over a seven-year period, artists represented by five of the world’s biggest galleries accounted for about a third of solo museum shows in the US.

Cenedella’s lawsuit against the museums

William Cavanaugh, a lawyer for the museums from the firm Patterson Belknap, described the allegations as “completely baseless,” telling the judge that “there are not enough facts” in the complaint to support such a sweeping claim. “I’m not sure I even understand the plaintiff’s theory,” Cavanaugh said.

In succinct remarks calling that the lawsuit be dismissed, Cavanaugh did not dispute that a few successful art galleries play a major role in supplying museums with art. But he rejected the idea that there is anything unlawful about the status quo. “The top artists are shown at the top art galleries,” he told the judge.

Galleries, Cavanaugh added, are like the agents that represent the NBA’s best professional basketball players. Because top players attract top agents, they tend to end up on the best teams.

Detail of Robert Cenedella, “Fin del Mundo” (2016)

The lawyers for the museums turned down an invitation to resolve the matter through a mediation process. In response, Robert Hantman, representing Cenedella against the museums, told the judge that he would file an amended complaint adding factual support for the artist’s allegations.

After the court appearance, Cenedella told Hyperallergic that his lawsuit has been widely misinterpreted as a work of satire. He said that money is not the goal, although it asks for damages of $100 million. “That’s not what it’s about,” he said. He is working with a PR firm to publicize the case.

Cenedella is known for colorful and often crowded satirical paintings, some of which have featured Santa Claus and Donald Trump. True to his reputation, he appeared in court wearing a purple and white checkered shirt, along with a tie knitted from multicolored yarn.

Before he decided to sue, Cenedella said, he sent copies of a handmade poster (included below) to 200 museums. He wanted them to display it in their galleries, as an acknowledgment of problems in the art market.

“Because today’s ‘ART’ is produced WITHOUT any specific or general set of STANDARDS, What is PRESENTED by MUSEUMS for public viewing IS SPECULATION and like a STOCK we can not guarentee [sic] its VALUE,” the poster says. The museums did not respond.

A poster that Robert Cenedella sent to 200 museums before filing his lawsuit

Daniel A. Gross is a former editor at Hyperallergic, and he is a writer and radio producer in New York City. Some of his stories have appeared in The Guardian, 99% Invisible, The Atlantic, and the website...