No Art Was Harmed In the Making of This Show

Nancy Spero "Tattoo" 1996 silkscreen

Barry and I love art and the art world, or at least most of the art world. We were recently rudely reminded of the part we don't like.

One month ago we asked for permission to reproduce an image which I had photographed myself, of a work we own, which was created by a great artist we much admire. We wanted to add a photo to the entry in our collection site, and also to include an image of it on a card announcing a show at English Kills Art Gallery. The work is "Tattoo", a 1996 print by Nancy Spero (1926-2009), and it was going to be included in the large group installation inside the Bushwick gallery.

The owner, Chris Harding, had approached us with the idea for the show, and he had selected 46 pieces from among the works mounted inside our apartment. I think his very first choice was the Spero; it was certainly his first choice for the invitation, and we were delighted with his pick. We're very fond of the artist, and we treasure the piece itself.

Once we were told it would be Spero, we set about to get photo permission from the estate. We wrote first to Galerie Lelong, which represents the artist. They asked us to send an image and to explain further the purposes for which it would be used. They would then forward the request to the estate. About two weeks later we were told it had been approved, and that an agreement form would follow, meaning the final paperwork to authorize the copyright, from VAGA (the Spero estate's licensing agent).

Everyone on our end got very excited. It seemed we would make the printing deadline, and the world would now see a little more of Nancy Spero.

Two days later we heard directly from VAGA for the first time, and this time the news was not so good: We had proposed a large detail of the print for the face of the card, believing it would be more easily read and more compelling in the 5 x7 inch format, but they would not approve cropping of any kind. Also, we would have to come up with hundreds of dollars in "copyright license fees" for the right to use it for the invitation and for the right to display it on our collection website; the fee for the latter would have to be paid every 5 years.

Now we are both pretty well known as activists opposed to camera prohibitions as found sometimes in galeries but much more commonly in museums - and also opposed to the current national obsession with prohibiting cameras almost everywhere else - but we generally abide by the photography rules, and never more scrupulously than in uploading images of art onto our on-line collection site. We have entered more than 800 pieces there, and while we'd like to show a proper image of each, that will require not only time, but also the permission of the artist or the estate. In the meantime we will not show anything larger than a thumbnail, since the artist retains the rights to reproduction.

We have never been refused when we have asked for an okay, except for one extraordinary circumstance, and we certainly have never been asked for money.

I wrote back to the gallery and to VAGA, explaining what we do, that we have not and do not intend to ever sell the art we own, and that absolutely no money was going to change hands in the mounting of the show (although I didn't go so far as to describe English Kills as the un-Mary Boone). I got a response saying that the representative for the estate and VAGA had jointly agreed to give us a 20% discount on the fee for the 5-year website JPEG license, but not for the card reproduction. We were told however that we could not publish or print anything until after the estate was persuaded that "Tattoo" was actually a Spero work. The letter added that the process of gathering the information they needed would help authenticate it for our own records and for the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné*.

I have to say that we have absolutely no quarrel with Galerie Lelong's part in the negotiations; in fact we were pleased by the gallery's courtesy and quick response, especially as it was over a holiday weekend.

After that last letter from VAGA we walked away, and instead went with the wonderful Alejandro Diaz image, "Esta Galeria", which can be seen on the invitation. Also, we have not uploaded a larger-size image of the Spero on the collection site.

Several notes (really just a start):

1) Neither the gallery nor the estate had an image of the work we own, and it seems pretty clear that they didn't know it even existed until I wrote to the gallery.

2) The Estate, or VAGA, was happy to charge us money to show an image I took of a work we ourselves owned, and of which it knew nothing; only when I responded in surprise at being asked to pay did anyone show any interest in the art itself.

3) The non-commercial purposes, of the collection and the show, are quite clear, and were made apparent to the gallery, the artist's estate, and VAGA more than once, yet they wanted to exploit them.

4) Do artists really need a corporation to protect them from people like us? Incidentally, while one look at the VAGA site shows that they control the visibility of hundreds of dead artists, they are actually dwarfed by another property guardian, Artists Rights Society (ARS).

5) We have spoken to a number of younger artists about Nancy Spero, and very few have even heard of her or her work; perhaps we can now understand why.

6) Both Nancy and her partner of a half century, Leon Golub, in their lives and in their art, addressed power relations; it's inconceivable to me that either would want her/his art to be shielded from view.

* The last time we were a part of a Catalogue Raisonné project both we and the estate (of Mark Morrisroe, owned by Fotomuseum Winterthur) bent over backwards to help document an artist's work; there wasn't a hint of image insecurity.

[The image is only a thumbnail, and therefore almost completely useless, because I do not have permission from the artist's estate to publish a larger size; the framed print itself can be seen at English Kills Art Gallery through October 28]

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Published on September 28, 2012 12:26 AM.

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