Professor Stephen Clowney of the University of Arkansas School of Law has written an interesting article examining the role of markets in certain special categories: things like organs, human lives, sex, and works of art. He has an interesting summary of the scholarship critical of markets; and he suggests I think that markets are not inherently corrupt. He ably points out flaws in the scholarship which criticizes commodification, yet he makes his own grave errors in relation to the role of the market on the art trade and its allied fields and disciplines. His approach is a kind of ethnographic study of art appraisers and prostitutes. The article is well-written and entertaining, but I just don’t think you get a complete picture of the art market by only talking with appraisers. He also ignores large areas of helpful scholarship from criminologists, totally ignores the Knoedler forgery scandal, and does not acknowledge the problems presented by the antiquities trade. But if you want an entertaining read, I can recommend it.
In a ruling which will likely feature in future art law coursebooks, the Second Circuit has affirmed a $6.75 million judgment against a real estate developer for whitewashing a number of murals at 5Pointz. This is a rare victory for artist’s moral rights in an American court.
The site became known as a prominent aerosol art haven in 2002 when the developer Gerald Wolkoff asked Jonathan Cohen to install some art on a warehouse in Long Island City in Queens. Cohen curated the space and had a rotation of various artists use the building. It attracted worldwide attention. It also displayed itself to passengers every time a 7 train would pass by:
As is often the case with moral rights cases that have been litigated under the Visual Artists Rights Act, changed circumstances for the building led to the deveoloper seeking to capitalize on the new-found gentrification of the neighborhood. In 2013 artists learned that Wolkoff was planning to destroy the warehouses to build a condominium complex. The artists sought landmark status and asked for an injunction under the Visual Artists Rights Act. That injunction was not granted, and rather than wait for the legal process to play out, or wait to let the artists preserve their works, Wolkoff whitewashed the art. That act probably did more harm to Wolkoff’s argument than any thing, with the district court finding the art had achieved recognized stature and imposing the maximum statutory damages of $150,000 per work (45 works in total) of art in order to sanction Wolkoff’s conduct and to vindicate the policy supporting the moral rights act.
Donn Zaretsky in commenting on the ruling wrote that the damages may have been the most interesting part of the ruling:
Now, it may be the facts of this case were so unique and so egregious that it won’t have a wider impact — basically what happened is that early in the litigation the artists got a TRO preventing the demolition of the site, it expired, and, while the district court was considering their application for a preliminary injunction to replace it, the developer had the work painted over, “without any genuine business need” to do so, “simply, as the district court found, an ‘act of pure pique and revenge.'” But the idea that significant statutory damages can be awarded in a VARA case even where actual damages can’t be proven could be a big deal.
Moral rights are rights that have been around for a very long time. They originated in the French Revolutionary idea of ‘droit moral de l’auteur’, stemming from the idea that if art is harmed, the artist also is harmed.
I am always surprised when I encounter art lawyers and academics who are critical of the idea of moral rights. They will often make the argument that artists do not want or need moral rights, and developers like Wolkoff will not allow art anywhere near their buildings ever again. But this elides the reality, these condominium developments have as I understand it been built to take advantage of the newly gentrified neighborhood, and the new ‘luxury’ development will still be called 5 Pointz, and feature aerosol art. The art will happen no matter what, this ruling just gives the artists vindication for the personality of these artists that was bound up and integral in these images. Developers like Wolkoff claim that these moral rights damage their property rights; but a moral right is not an economic right. Instead it accounts for the psychological suffering which takes place when an artist’s art has been harmed in some way.
This is an unsolicited plug—I have no doubt that many folks are very familiar with the good work that the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) has done for many years. But one of its most remarkable accomplishments is its Art Law and Cultural Property Database. If you are a student, attorney, art professional, or cultural heritage advocate and not availing yourself of this resource, you are likely duplicating work and failing to account for much of the advocacy and scholarship which has come before. I encouraged my own librarians to secure a subscription for my work, and the work of students in my Art Law Seminars. I’ve used this terrific resource many many times in preparing lectures and informing my own scholarship, and I encourage you to consider adding a subscription for your own firm or institution.
The art market owes much of its success to tax policy. A new essay in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts examines many of the financial structures used by Pop Art gallerist Leo Castelli in the middle of the 20th Century. The Essay is authored by Michael W. Maizels (visiting researcher at the Harvard metaLAB) and William E. Foster (Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Arkansas School of Law)
This essay focuses on the efforts of an enterprising art gallerist, Leo Castelli, to aggressively promote his stable of Pop artists through the development of several financial structures, including some designed to leverage the relatively generous income tax deductions and anemic enforcement regime of the time. In doing so, Castelli not only seeded the ground for the international ascendance of American visual art, but also engineered financial arrangements that fostered the development of a lucrative and resilient art market that endures to this day. With the aim to provide insights into both the legal-political and the art historical registers, this essay describes a tax law framework that provides a key piece missing from the art historical puzzle.
The Art Newspaper has a useful update on the current state of the Guelph Treasure dispute. The Supreme Court has asked the Executive Branch, specifically the Solicitor General of the United States for an opinion on the case, in order to aid in its decision over whether or not to hear an appeal of the case from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Here’s a quick background on the dispute. The Welfenschatz, or Guelph trove, a collection of 42 objects dating from the 11th-15th centuries is currently in the possession of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and has been claimed by successors of art dealers who were fleeing the holocaust. These objects were originally housed in the cathedral in Braunschweig, owned by the House of Guelph. During the First World War, the House of Guelph lost reign over Braunschweig and in the 1920s the pieces were sold to a consortium of Frankfurt art dealers, including 82 items in 1929. Later in 1935 the Prussian state, led by Hermann Goering, bought the remaining pieces of the hoard in what the claimaints allege was a “genocidal taking”. In 2014, a German government commission found that the transaction was not a forced sale.
The claimants then brought suit in the United States. The current possessors, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation have defended that action on the grounds that as a Foreign Government, they are immune from suit in the United States under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Claimants have argued that the actions of the Prussian government fall under one of the exceptions to that law, that the actions of the Prussians was a violation of International law, namely genocide.
For some further helpful background from the perspective of the claimants, Nicholas O’Donnell, counsel for the claimants, has an excellent blog where he often updates this dispute.
Provenance, the ownership history of an artifact or work of art, has become one of the primary mechanisms for determining the legal status and authenticity of a cultural object. Professional associations, including museum organizations, have adopted the “1970 standard” as a means to prevent the acquisition of an ancient object from promoting the looting of archaeological sites, which is driven by the economic gains realized through the international market. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), one of the museum world’s most influential professional organizations, requires its members to list the ancient artworks and artifacts that they have acquired after 2008 that do not conform to the 1970 standard in an online object registry. The study presented here of the AAMD’s Object Registry for New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art analyzes the extent to which AAMD member museums do not comply with the 1970 standard and, perhaps of greater significance, the weaknesses in the provenance information on which they rely in acquiring such works. I argue that systematic recurrences of inadequate provenance certitude are symptomatic of the larger problem of methodology and standards of evidence in claiming documented provenance. A museum’s acceptance of possibly unverifiable provenance documentation and, therefore, its acquisition of an object that may have been recently looted, in turn, impose a negative externality on society through the loss of information about our past caused by the looting of archaeological sites.
Gerstenblith, P. (2019). Provenances: Real, Fake, and Questionable. International Journal of Cultural Property,26(3), 285-304. doi:10.1017/S0940739119000171
Artists have brought suit in Pittsburgh and Memphis over the destruction of public murals. Both suits involve the use of blighted buildings and spaces which have come under development. As these areas character changes, or as attitudes about the public art shift, City officials and landowners have removed, distorted, or even destroyed public murals.
In Memphis, as part of a 135 mural installation organized by Paint Memphis, seven murals drew the attention of Memphis City officials, and were painted over near the end of January in 2018 as part of a “miscommunication”.
Memphis City Council officials say they have received complaints about some of the murals, and want to allow residents to vet the murals before they are erected in public spaces.
A similar dispute involving mural artist Kyle Holbrook has taken place in Pittsburgh. Holbrook alleges that property owners, the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and others have destroyed eight of his murals on walls and buildings.
Both suits use the federal moral rights law, the Visual Artists Rights Act as a basis for remedying destruction of murals and even attempting to enjoin further destruction.
In 2013 the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) commissioned artist Konstantin Dimopoulos to create an installation called “Painted Trees” in Houston. The installation used a series of crepe myrtles embedded in one of Houston’s traffic cloverleafs at Waugh and Memorial. Dimopoulos has undertaken similar blue tree projects internationally, hoping to raise awareness for deforestation and draw attention to trees we might otherwise ignore. Here’s a short video of the artist describing the art advocacy project:
Well the artist has been surprised to discover that the work has been reprised/plagiarized/re-celebrated/repeated. Many like me had likely assumed that the artist was repeating the project. Not so, this project was an initiative of the Houston Parks and Recreation department. They painted the same grove of trees, and another grouping, blue and green.
Here’s my own photo of one of the groups I took a few weeks ago:
The art project was a popular surprise to most five years ago. Though It always struck me as odd that the artist and City invited selfie hunters to an area without sidewalks, where you had to dodge unfriendly cars to get a close look.
According to the City, the new project was meant to draw attention to wildflower and prairie plantings that have been done in the area. The city plants wildflowers in the area most years, and this summer red phlox should bloom amid the green and blue trunks when the crepe myrtles are also blooming. A great thing to look at, and an improvement certainly over a sad strip of roadside mown grass. But has the city of Houston managed to violate the moral rights of Dimopoulos? Or will most of the attraction be owed to the work of mother nature? Texas arts blog Glasstire noted that Dimopoulos’ wife noted in a facebook comment that:
It’s Adele Dimopoulos here, Kon’s wife and business manager. We most certainly do know about the blue trees being copied by city Parks and we are in the process of addressing this through various channels.
We are aware that there is a much bigger issue of copyright and IP for all artists at stake here. So sit tight and let’s see what shakes down.
The artist claims to own rights in the special paint formula that he developed, which is temporary, harmless to the trees, and bright blue. In response Abel Gonzales, the parks department’s deputy director of greenspace management is quoted in the Houston Chronicle this morning that: “We thought we did our homework”, noting he cleared the paint project with parks department planners. And the formula was a new creation of a city employee, combining lime wash and pigment. The artist Dimopolous is quoted in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, and is not a fan:
“It looks horrible, and it really has no relevance anymore here”.
It seems mainly what Dimopoulos wants is an apology from the city, perhaps even removal of the pigment. ON the one hand I can certainly appreciate his position, but if his art was intended to bring attention to deforestation, the amount of water and harm to the trees perhaps shows he wasn’t all that interested in the environmental aspects of his projects. He really wanted individual attention as an artist. Nothing wrong with that of course, but when you have a relatively straightforward idea, that many other artists have likely had, perhaps you should be a little magnanimous when others attempt to carry forward your vision. Am I wrong, is the artist wrong? Let me know in the comments.
Since 2011 the HOPE Outdoor Gallery in Austin has offered permission walls for aspiring street artists. Hope stands for “Helping Other People Everywhere”. The site was a failed condo development which was converted into an outdoor gallery with the help of artist Shepard Fairy in 2011. It has become quite the tourist and Austin attraction. Fairey of course is best known for his OBEY stickers, and the controversy over his successfully lifted Obama HOPE poster.
Now though the park is moving to a new location on 6 acres outside of central Austin near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The new site should still attract visitors and Instagram photo hunters, but will not be quite so centrally located North of bustling Lamar in the heart of Austin. That property is a valuable piece of land in Austin, and as one of the founders of the HOPE organization which manages the outdoor gallery Andi Scull Cheatham told the Austin Chronicle in 2016:
This project was meant to have a shelf life of a couple years, but once the owner saw how much it had been embraced and loved by the community, he’s done everything he can to keep it going.
The move was approved in February by the Austin Historical Landmark Commission. Part of the cement wall of the existing park will be moved to the new location, but the rest of the walls will be demolished. An amicable arrangement as compared to the 5Pointz dispute.
A federal court has held that the real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff is liable for intentionally destroying 45 works of art when they were whitewashed in 2013, amounting to a total award of $6.75 million dollars. The ruling comes as a bit of a surprise given the limited success of artists under the Visual Artists Rights Act in the past.
Jerry Wolkoff purchased the vacant factory in the 1970s in Brooklyn after manufacturing had left the area. Graffiti artists asked him for permission to display their art on the building in the 1990s, and he agreed. The building then became a haven for graffitie, even a renowned attraction. An artist Jonathan Cohen, otherwise known as Meres One, started acting as a curator of the space in 2002.
By 2013 the factory had become a valuable piece of real estate, and Wolkoff had plans to demolish the site and start a new development on the. The site had been much beloved by then, and so the artists brought suit to prevent the destruction of the art. That injunction was unsuccessful, and so Wolkoff immediately whitewashed the art, a willful act that seems to have been the primary driver for Judge Block’s scathing decision:
If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully. Given the degree of difficulty in proving actual damages, a modest amount of statutory damages would probably have been more in order.
The shame of it all is that since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time. It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.
The ruling may be appealed, but the decision marks an important precedent for works of visual art and especially works of temporary art. Landscape art, graffiti, and other similar works may be impacted by the ruling.
On one hand this ruling stands as an obvious victory for the artists themselves. But taken in the broader context, will future property developers be wary about inviting graffiti artists? Perhaps street art has become so popular and ubiquitous now, that there will not be a chilling effect of future uses of derelict buildings for graffiti exhibitions like Cohen helped create.