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From the Chairman

What is—or should be—the relationship of artist, artwork, and owner in the sphere of public art projects? To be clear, I do not have, nor do I propose in this letter, the “right” answer to this question. I am sure, however, that this complex subject needs further exploration in cooperation with all of the interested parties.

Whether it is New York’s clandestine dismantling of a Richard Serra work on Manhattan’s Federal Plaza or the recent controversy surrounding Sharon Louden’s work commissioned by Yahoo! in Sunnyvale, California (Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2007), the relative rights of an originating artist and a subsequent owner are hardly clear. Many areas of law and, of course, local, state, and federal legislation are all intertwined, adding to the emotion and complexity.

Not too long ago, art ownership seemed a relatively simple matter. Regardless of the seller’s identity—artist, gallery or other artist’s representative, prior owner—a purchaser acquired an artwork, and that artwork then essentially belonged to the purchaser. The purchaser’s rights to the artwork might be limited by contract and copyright or similar law, but otherwise the purchaser’s rights were generally unabridged.

The framework of private ownership of artwork hasn’t really changed much. Leaving insurance issues aside, it seems hard to imagine that anyone could have required Steve Wynn to repair his Picasso after he accidentally put his elbow through the canvas. It seems certain that Wynn could have chosen to do nothing, repair the work, or throw it away and no one would have had much to say about it. Perhaps “modifying” it would be about the only thing that Wynn would be restricted from doing.

Yet once we enter the domain of “public” art—not, mind you, the public domain—the discussion of the rules changes rather dramatically. This seems particularly odd to me given that public art is often produced pursuant to a far more deliberate contractual arrangement between a willing buyer and a willing seller—a contract to which the artist is almost always a direct party. Further, while the work may be created for “public” display pursuant to “public” art programs, it is still owned by a private party.

So why does it appear that such transactions have us heading toward more and more conflict and legislation, despite the fact that these transactions appear to be negotiated on a more level playing field than other art transactions, which may not involve the originating artist at all? Subject to the terms of the contract which it voluntarily entered, is Yahoo! otherwise deemed to agree to spend an unknown future sum to maintain Loudon’s work to the artist’s satisfaction while simultaneously navigating the conflicting requirements of the state legislation that required the artwork in the first place, other legislation that limits Yahoo!’s right to modify that artwork, and the city agency that claims that the very same artwork is making Yahoo!’s grounds look unseemly?

Obviously there are many complicated questions surrounding this subject, and it certainly cannot be satisfactorily addressed in this letter. That said, I’d like your thoughts. Write to me at <>, and perhaps we will plan a panel discussion on the subject in Grand Rapids in 2008!

—Josh Kanter
Chairman, ISC Board of Directors

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