Beloved Shepard Fairey artwork at center of lawsuit

Visitors to L.A. County-USC Hospital's children's wing love Shepard Fairey's 40-foot mural painted in December.
(Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles Times)

It was billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The highest bidder in an online charity auction would get his name on a plaque next to a dazzling new Shepard Fairey mural at a Los Angeles hospital, a meeting with the celebrated artist and VIP status at an unveiling ceremony.

A year and a half later, Fairey’s work adorns the children’s wing of L.A. County-USC Medical Center, but the name of the man who won the auction appears only on a lawsuit demanding his money back. It’s an unseemly legal dispute pitting one of young Hollywood’s favorite charities against an entertainment industry entrepreneur and reality television figure.

“I am absolutely mortified about this,” said Jennifer Howell, founder of Art of Elysium, the nonprofit being sued by winning bidder Jeremy Larner. “The mural is beautiful. The hospital staff and children love it, and I don’t want to see it spoiled in any way.”

Photos: Shepard Fairey

Larner, a self-described “art geek” who has other Fairey works in his personal collection, said he was thrilled when he won the right to be the sole sponsor of the project with a $30,000 bid, but what followed was, in the words of his lawyer, “a 15-month saga of failed promises.”

“What I bought has not come to fruition, and therefore I’m entitled to return of my funds,” said Larner, known to viewers of MTV’s"Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory” as the skateboarder’s business manager.

Larner, 34, won the auction in March 2011 and immediately wired the money to the company running the auction for Art of Elysium. The L.A.-based charity raises funds to provide art, music and theater workshops for hospitalized children. It is chaired by Ryan Kavanaugh, the head of Relativity Media, and its fundraisers have become red-carpet events drawing celebrities such as Kirsten Dunst, Julianne Hough and David Arquette.

The charity chose Fairey’s piece as the first in a planned installation of up to $1 million in art in the hospital’s pediatric wing. Part of the sponsorship Larner won was a chance to watch Fairey paint the 40-foot-long mural, featuring birds and bold patterns, on the hallway that leads to the pediatric wing.

In a timeline in his lawsuit, Larner contended that he repeatedly reached out to the charity for updates on the mural but received no firm information for months. He said that after numerous queries to project manager Eli Consilvio, he received a prank phone call in November from a mutual friend and fellow art collector.

“Disguising himself as somebody from USC, this person asked Larner questions about the mural and how he wanted his name on the plaque and then proceeds to laugh sneeringly and in jest at Larner,” his suit states.

Consilvio later apologized to Larner, but said in an interview that it was Larner’s friend who initiated the call and that the men had a long history of prank-calling each other.

“Was it funny? Maybe a little,” Larner acknowledged. “But I was extremely embarrassed and still am.”

Fairey painted the mural in December, but Larner was on vacation and unable to attend.

“He said he and Shepard had met so many times that it wasn’t a big deal,” Consilvio said.

As the months wore on, Larner grew frustrated that no dedication ceremony had occurred. Consilvio said he told Larner that the administrative issues with the hospital were causing the delays and thought Larner understood. Larner filed a fraud and breach-of-contract suit in L.A. County Superior Court on June 25, detailing the delays and the prank call.

“He decided all of a sudden he wanted to take this action. We’re still unsure of the real intent of the lawsuit,” Consilvio said.

Larner said that he felt the charity had acted unprofessionally in what he viewed as a business transaction: “It’s not a donation. It’s a contract for something that hasn’t been delivered.”

Howell, of the Art of Elysium, said the nonprofit can’t return the money and find another donor because it can no longer offer an important part of the sponsorship — watching Fairey install the mural.

The mural unveiling is tentatively set for next month, Consilvio said. The plaque has yet to be made, and Larner said he wasn’t sure whether he would attend. The artwork has become a beloved part of the pediatric wing. “People are ecstatic about it, patients and staff,” said hospital spokeswoman Rosa Saca.

Photos: Shepard Fairey