HomeDesignLaw School That Covered Slavery Murals Didn’t Violate Artist’s Rights, Court Rules

Law School That Covered Slavery Murals Didn’t Violate Artist’s Rights, Court Rules

For the past two years, Vermont law and graduate school administrators have been locked in a legal battle with the artist who painted a set of murals for the school in the 1990s. Painted on the interior walls of a building, two murals depict the brutality of slavery, including a slave market.

Administrators moved to hide the murals, which some students believed depicted black people in racist ways. But the artist, a white man named Sam Carson, sued to prevent the school from hiding his work, saying the hiding violated federal law.

Under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, artists have certain “moral rights” to their work, including the right to prevent the art from being destroyed, altered or defaced without their consent. Carson’s lawyers argued that installing acoustic panels at the school was tantamount to modifying and even destroying the 24-foot-tall murals.

A federal appeals court last week rejected Carson’s argument, ruling that “attaching a work of art behind a barrier does not modify or destroy the work.”

“Change, not conventionally understood Concealing a work of art behind a solid barrier, assuming that the work remains intact while hidden from view,” a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said in his decisionwhich affirmed the judgment of a district court

Steven Hyman, a lawyer for Carson, 77, said the court set a dangerous precedent.

“A restrictive definition of alteration or destruction is inconsistent with the meaning and purpose of VARA, which is to preserve and protect art and to prevent changes to art that would impair the dignity and integrity of artists,” he said.

Vermont Law and Graduate School of South Royalton spokeswoman Lisa Lance said in a statement that it was pleased with the decision, “which we believe strikes an appropriate balance between competing interests.”

Industry experts said the court’s ruling is consistent with past interpretations of VARA.

“The rights of artists must be balanced with those of real property owners, and this subset of VARA-protected works that are installed and cannot be removed without demolition requires a special balancing act,” said Megan Noah, a partner. The New York law firm Pryor Cashman was not involved in the case.

Michelle Bogart, professor emeritus of art history at Stony Brook University, said the court’s decision could make artists more subject to public will. Artists “are vulnerable to having their work removed because no one likes it,” he said.

Carson and the school reached an agreement in 1993 to paint the mural. The artworks depict the capture of people in Africa, the slave trade in the United States, and the work of abolitionists in Vermont to aid formerly enslaved people.

For decades, students objected to the murals, which they said depicted black people in cartoonish ways and brought to mind the racist iconography of the past. In the summer of 2020, during the national Black Lives Matter protests, opposition gained enough momentum that the administration hid the artwork behind acoustic panels.


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