Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA)

In recent art world news, following last month’s federal district court ruling that a New York City developer violated the Visual Artists Rights Act (“VARA”) when he demolished well known graffiti space, 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center, the 5Pointz graffiti artists recently requested that the developer pay their attorneys’ fees totaling $2.6 million.  In last month’s ruling, the judge ordered the developer to pay $6.75 million in damages to the graffiti artists for his willful violation of VARA.  Our recent coverage of the aerosol art litigation can be found on the Art Law blog here.

As an amendment to the US Copyright Act, VARA’s dictate that courts “may . . . award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing party” covers the 5Pointz case.

The 5Pointz artists argue that they should be reimbursed for fighting a case that was “unprecedented in both its scope and its subject matter,” and one that “stands to shape the history of art itself in the United States.”

The plaintiffs should receive [fees] in order to encourage other attorneys to assume the risk of fighting for the cherishing and preservation of public art in the United States and to fully compensate the plaintiff attorneys for their path-breaking work and substantial assumption of litigation risks and costs on behalf of the large group of plaintiff artists[.]”

With a requested total $2.6 million in attorneys’ fees from the 5Pointz litigation, one may or may not regard such high amount as “reasonable” to justify an award to the artists.



In recent art news, Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan is being sued by a sculptor for relocating his bronze sculpture of the stump and root system of a very large sycamore tree entitled “The Trinity Root” that was formally installed on the church grounds.

In September 2005, the 18-foot-tall work was installed by sculptor Steve Tobin in the church courtyard in the same location where the original 70-year old sycamore tree stood until it was damaged and ripped out of the ground by the seismic impact of the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

In late 2015, the sculptor discovered that the church had relocated the sculpture to a church-owned site in Connecticut without his consent.  The sculptor had received photographs from the church showing the sculpture with “significant damage” after being told that the sculpture had arrived to the new location in good condition.

The recently filed lawsuit in the Federal District Court in Manhattan alleges that the church violated a law known as the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) that gives visual artists rights over their works even when no longer owed by them.  The sculptor’s attorney said that the law “prohibits the removal of sculptures” created to be permanently installed at a specific site.  “This is about the solemn promise the church gave to Steve Tobin when he offered to create that sculpture” and “[h]e offered to create it if the church would give it a permanent place in the courtyard.  The church agreed.”

According to the lawsuit, after the church’s new leader was installed in 2015, he moved “to send ‘The Trinity Root’ away because he did not want non[-]parishioners and ‘hordes of strangers’ to continue to crowd the church’s courtyard.”

The church released the following statement:  “While we have no comment on this litigation, Trinity is pleased to have the sculpture at Trinity’s retreat center, where it will be among a collection of planned sites that will encourage prayerful reflection, remembrance and spiritual transformation.”

For additional information in connection with this suit, see “Fate Of The ‘Trinity Root’ 9.11 Memorial By Steve Tobin To Be Decided In Federal District Court.”