Babcock on “The Public Trust in Public Art”

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, (source).

Professor Hope Babcock, of Georgetown Law, has published an interesting discussion on public art which carries forward a number of ideas presented by Joseph Sax and the public trust. She looks at the interesting problem of art which is withheld from public enjoyment. In other words should this iconic work of Winslow Homer enter the public patrimony, and thus be prevented from disappearing into a private collection if the Met would ever decide to deaccession it?


Private hoarding of important works of art is a phenomenon that has caused their disappearance from public view. The loss of this art undermines republican values like education, community, and citizenship, and therefore should be resisted. This Article explores various legal tools to prevent this from happening, including doctrines and laws that protect artists’ rights in their work, but which offer the public little relief. Turning to two well-known common-law doctrines—public dedication and public trust—to see whether they might provide a solution, the author favors the latter because it is nimbler and better suited to the public nature of important works of art. But she recognizes that making viable use of the public trust doctrine requires enhancement with incentives, such as those offered by listing the art on a register, the tax code, and external norms of social behavior. The Article is a tribute to Professor Joseph L. Sax’s public trust scholarship, which has inspired so many of us who follow in his footsteps.


Babcock, Hope M., “The Public Trust in Public Art: Property Law’s Case Against Private Hoarding of ‘Public’ Art” 50 Conn. L. Rev. 641 (2018). https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/2139


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