When curator Bruce W. Ferguson died last year, his career achievements had been numerous. In 1993, Ferguson founded the art space SITE Santa Fe, which remains a destination in New Mexico, and he also organized parts of editions of the Venice Biennale, the Bienal de São Paulo, and the Biennale of Sydney. His last job, as president of the Otis College of Art and Design, a famed art school in Los Angeles, ended just months before his death at the age of 73. Now, his four-year term at the college is mired in controversy.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in the Western Division of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Anne Marie Ferguson—Bruce’s sister—alleges that Otis discriminated against her brother by forcing him out after the school’s board learned he was ill with pancreatic cancer. The lawsuit has been filed against the school and “Does 1 to 10,” a designation referring to the generic names John and Jane Doe that allows individuals whose names or roles are not currently known to be added to the suit later.
“Otis rushed to fire Ferguson because of Ferguson’s disability and his need for accommodation,” the suit alleges. It goes on to call allegations of poor performance issued by the Otis College board “a pretext to fire him.”
“I’ve never seen an employee get a raise, a diagnosis of cancer, and then fired all within a matter of months,” James Urbanic, a lawyer for Anne Marie Ferguson, said in an email. “Cancer may have taken Bruce Ferguson’s life, but Otis took his reputation.”
Ferguson’s reasons for departing the school had not been made known. Last March, a representative for Otis told the Los Angeles Times that “a number of contributing factors” had led to him leaving the school. After the suit was filed Wednesday, Otis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ferguson began leading Otis in 2015 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. At the beginning of 2019, the suit claims, Ferguson privately disclosed his illness to Gail Buchalter, the chair of Otis’s board. Then, according to the narrative laid out in the suit, he told faculty about his diagnosis last February.
According to the suit, a group of faculty members submitted a letter of “no confidence” citing weakening morale at the school and a lack of transparency over Ferguson’s leadership—a move the director’s estate now regards as a pretext for his dismissal. Ferguson allegedly resisted further inquiries into his health and, when the board asked him about his condition and its impact on the future of his job in a meeting allegedly held at Buchalter’s home, Ferguson—as per the suit—“complained that the question was inappropriate.”
The filing then claims that, last March, as Ferguson prepared to undergo chemotherapy, he was placed on administrative leave. One unnamed board member is quoted as having told him, “You’re fired. You’re axed.”
The Ferguson estate’s lawyers claim that Otis acted in defiance of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which protects workers from discrimination based on their race, gender, sexuality, religion, or disability, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which the legal team says applies to Ferguson because Otis’s board perceived him as having a disability. The lawsuit alleges that Otis engaged in “willful, knowing, and intentional discrimination and retaliation against” Ferguson.
Otis first opened in 1918, and has since become a nexus of the Californian art scene. Its notable graduates include artists John Baldessari, Kim Gordon, David Hammons, Kerry James Marshall, Ruben Ochoa, and Patssi Valdez.