Judges Just Don’t Like VARA and Applied art

The Burning Man installation, "La Contessa"
The Burning Man installation, “La Contessa”

Daniel Grant reports on a recent Visual Artists Rights Act case involving the Burning Man re-purposed bus known as La Contessa.

A recent court decision in Nevada raises this question and, perhaps more fundamentally, the issue of whether or not VARA might need to be rewritten or updated to account for a broader definition of art. On June 8 of this year, a three-member Appeals Court panel affirmed a 2009 lower court ruling that called the demolition of a refashioned school bus—turned into a Spanish pirate ship on wheels and used for events as part of the annual Burning Man late-August to early-September festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada between 2002 and 2005—not a violation of VARA, because the vehicle in its new form did not constitute fine art but “applied art.”

The 16’ x 60’ pirate ship, called La Contessa, was created by two artists, Simon Cheffins and Gregory Jones, who transformed an out-of-commission school bus into a replica 16th century Spanish galleon that included a hull, decking, masts, and a hand-crafted figurehead. La Contessa added to the sometime circus nature of Burning Man, used for rides, marching band performances, children’s treasure hunts and even two weddings. After the conclusion of the festival, the vehicle was put into storage on nearby land controlled by a woman, Joan Grant, with a lifetime tenancy of the property. However, in 2005, Grant’s home burned down and she abandoned her tenancy, which was then taken over by a limited liability company controlled by a Michael Stewart. “La Contessa” remained on the property and was not reclaimed by Cheffins and Jones the following year, and in late 2006 Stewart dismantled and then burned the wooden structure so that a scrap metal dealer could remove the underlying school bus. In 2009, the artists brought a VARA lawsuit against Stewart, losing in district court and more recently on appeal. “The focus of our inquiry should be on whether the object in question originally was—and continues to be—utilitarian in nature,” the Appeals Court ruled, although noting that the ship has “some artistic or aesthetic merit.”

In a concurring opinion, one of the three judges, Margaret McKeown, expressed concern that the ruling being issued was not workable and required “a more nuanced definition of ‘applied art’ that balances between the risk of unduly restricting VARA’s reach and the risks of turning judges into art critics.”

Daniel Grant, The More Art Changes, the More Urgent an Update to the Visual Artists’ Rights Act Is, Observer (Aug. 3, 2016), http://observer.com/2016/08/the-more-art-changes-the-more-urgent-an-update-to-the-visual-rights-act-becomes/.
CHEFFINS v. Stewart, Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit 2016 – Google Scholar, https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=7731083587113005243&q=la+contessa+visual+artists+rights+act&hl=en&as_sdt=6,44.
CHEFFINS v. Stewart, Dist. Court, D. Nevada 2011 – Google Scholar, https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=10972864568398950890&q=la+contessa+visual+artists+rights+act&hl=en&as_sdt=6,44.

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