VERMONT ARTIST SUES TO PROTECT HIS WORK
I came across a really interesting new lawsuit filed in federal court in Vermont. The plaintiff is an artist named Samuel Kerson. In 1994, Mr. Kerson was commissioned to paint a mural on the side of a building at the Vermont Law School. The mural depicts Vermont’s efforts to help slaves seeking freedom in the years before the civil war.
Apparently, more recently, some students have objected to the mural for a variety of reasons. In response, the Law School announced plans to paint over the mural. The controversy has been brewing for much of 2020, but it culminated in Kerson’s filing his lawsuit on December 2.
The lawsuit invokes a federal statute called the Visual Artist Rights Act. The statute gives an artist the right to “prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and . . . to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature . . . . “
According to Kerson, because he painted the mural directly on the building’s sheetrock, it cannot be removed without mutilating or modifying it. The Law School is apparently planning to put tiles over the mural, presumably thinking that covering it up does not violate the statute. Kerson is asking for a temporary and permanent injunction enjoining the law school, its agents, attorneys, and employees, and all those acting in concert with them, from taking any action with regard to the Murals that will remove, cover, destroy, disfigure, mutilate or otherwise modify the Murals.
We’ll see how this one comes out. Over the past few years we’ve seen offensive statutes come down in a variety of locations. I’m not familiar with many instances of murals being targeted for removal. And this case will likely set the precedent for how these controversies will get handled going forward.