Alan Feuer reports on the opening of the jury trial brought by artists whose works were removed from the 5Pointz building back in 2013. They are seeking a remedy for the infringement of their moral rights under a federal law called the Visual Artists Rights Act.
Eric Baum, a lawyer for the artists in his opening statement told the jury:
[T]hat they would hear from several art experts that the whitewashed graffiti was indeed of “recognized stature” and that Mr. Wolkoff, no matter how generous he had been with his buildings in the past, failed to give the artists the proper 90-day notice that 5Pointz was slated to come down. Mr. Baum added that his clients never wanted to sue; they wanted to save 5Pointz. But once the complex and the art had been destroyed, he said, they had only two choices: ask for money or do nothing.
The buildings developer, Jerry Wolkoff was represented by David Ebert who in his opening statement:
[A]cknowledged that 5Pointz was a “fantastic place” — one that Mr. Wolkoff helped create — but he argued that the law in question was irrelevant. “V.A.R.A. does not protect buildings,” he said. “It protects art.
The case is a rare instance of a moral rights claim brought on behalf of artists which has made it to the merits before a jury. Bringing claims in federal court is an expensive proposition, and few of these cases survive the summary judgment stage. The case will be fascinating to watch unfold.
Cathay Smith (Asst. Prof. at Montana School of Law) has published an article in the St. John’s Law Review, Community Rights to Public Art. The article surely would have generated the attention of the student editors of the St. John’s Law Review, as the 5 Pointz building, until it was demolished in 2014, was located just a few miles away from the St. John’s campus. From the abstract:
In 1932, the Rockefeller family commissioned Diego Rivera to paint an enormous mural as the centerpiece of the RCA Building lobby in Rockefeller Center in New York City. The colorful mural that Rivera painted, titled Man at the Crossroads, included images of social, political, industrial, and scientific visions of contemporary society. One night in February of 1934, the Rockefellers hired workers to chisel the mural off the wall without any warning or notice. The mural was broken into pieces before being carted away and dumped. The destruction of his mural shocked Rivera. More importantly, however, the destruction of Rivera’s mural permanently deprived the public of a significant work of public art and heritage. The public was stunned at the destruction of the mural; protesters called the Rockefellers’ act “art murder” and “cultural vandalism.” Nevertheless, the mural was the Rockefeller’s property and, despite public support for the mural, they had the legal right to destroy it. More than eight decades later, communities still face this type of loss of heritage through the destruction of public art. For instance, public outrage followed the 2014 demolition of 5 Pointz in New York, when the owner of 5 Pointz whitewashed and destroyed the 20-plus-year-old “graffiti Mecca” to make way for two new $400 million luxury high-rise apartment towers. On the opposite coast, just last year, Piedmont Avenue neighbors in Oakland were shocked when the owner of Kronnerburger Restaurant demolished a beloved community mural in connection with its construction of a new trendy burger restaurant.
Property owners generally have the right to destroy their own property. This Article argues, however, that certain property is so connected to a community’s identity that the community’s right to preserve its heritage may trump a property owner’s right to destroy. This Article explores existing, yet underutilized, legal solutions a community may use or adapt to preserve public art when that art has become a part of its cultural heritage. Finally, recognizing that preservation has its limits, and that without destruction there will be no space for creation, this Article ultimately sets forth questions communities will need to grapple with as they weigh whether and how to protect works of public art as cultural heritage.
Maribeth Smith has written an interesting student note in the Brooklyn Law Review which argues that trademark protection may be a good way to protect street artists from having their works appropriated by fashion designers:
Graffiti has transformed over the last several decades from a sign of urban blight to a sign of artistic expression. As a result of this shift, clothing designers and other players in fashion have begun to use images of “street art” as part of their lines. This leaves graffiti artists with no way of protecting their art, especially because of the illegal nature of graffiti. This note examines current sources of law that can be used to protect artists from this infringement. Artists have unsuccessfully argued under both moral rights and copyright theories. However, copyright and moral rights analyses do not address the nuanced issues that illegal art presents because of the way both areas of law have been interpreted by the courts. Moral rights have traditionally been thought of as preservationist in nature, and copyright has traditionally only covered legally made works of art. However, there is one avenue that can be used to protect this art, which is false designation of origin under the Lanham Act, the federal trademark statute. This note argues that the Lanham Act is a source of law that graffiti artists can utilize to protect their work.
Very early this morning the artwork at the 5Pointz was whitewashed over at the urging of Jerry and David Walkoff, the landlords of the building. 5 Pointz has become a canvas for Graffiti artists. Last week a federal judge in Brooklyn denied a temporary injunction petition by artists seeking to save the building from demolition.
In an interesting twist, this whitewashing may be considered an act of intentional mutilation and destruction, and may in fact make VARA claims for these artists more likely to succeed—particularly if the intentional destruction of these works can be shown to prejudice the honor and reputation of specific individuals. The whitewashing was certainly done in a direct way to preclude further legal action, but it may have only emboldened opponents and demonstrated some really egregious bad faith on the part of the building owners.
Graffiti has long been a target of municipal legislation that aims to preserve property values, public safety, and aesthetic integrity in the community. Not only are graffitists at risk of criminal prosecution but property owners are subject to civil and criminal penalties for harboring graffiti on their land. Since the 1990s, most U.S. cities have promulgated graffiti abatement ordinances that require private property owners to remove graffiti from their land, often at their own expense. These ordinances define graffiti broadly to include essentially any surface marking applied without advance authorization from the property owner. Meanwhile, graffiti has risen in prominence as a legitimate art form, beginning in the 1960s and most recently with the contributions of street artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Some property owners may find themselves fortuitous recipients of “graffiti” they deem art and want to preserve in spite of graffiti abatement ordinances and sign regulations requiring the work’s removal. This Note argues that private property owners who wish to preserve uncommissioned art on their land can challenge these laws under the First Amendment, claiming that, as applied, regulations requiring removal are unconstitutional because they leave the property owner insufficient alternative channels for expression.
An interesting paper. As the value of graffiti increases, the law must catch up to help landowners who want to hold on to it. An idea which runs counter to the municipal ordinances which want to clean it up. The idea of who owns something that has value, but has no owner challenges a lot of the our underlying assumptions about property.
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