Back to The Future

It was 20 years ago today when Peter Townsend told me he was launching a new visual arts magazine, and invited me to contribute what he hoped might become a regular column dealing with current legal issues relating to visual art. I agreed, and produced the first Artlaw column for the first issue of Art Monthly published in October 1976. And so, 200 issues later, I am pleased and proud to celebrate not only the 20th birthday of the journal but also of this column; and to take this unique opportunity to review its work with a weather eye on the future – rather like that celebrated literary metaphor of ‘the angel of history walking backwards into the future’.

Newcastle upon Tyne was really where Artlaw had its origins. I was an undergraduate at the University there studying for a law degree, graduating in 1969. When I came to London to study to become a barrister, I was in regular contact with ex-members of the University’s Fine Art Department who had graduated around the same time as myself, who were also in London trying to establish themselves as solo practitioners. We had a lot more in common than simply a shared Alma Mater: we were all penniless and trying to forge solo careers, in the law and in art respectively. We came to share our experiences of both art and the law and, as a result, it became clear to me that the law relating to the visual arts was not only complex and esoteric, but also that few legal practitioners (like myself at that time) had a good working knowledge of the art world and the minefield of legal and Financial problems regularly encountered by artists and arts administrators, public and private. I set about helping my artist friends as best I could with what we called their ‘artlaw’ problems on a purely friendly basis (by the very nature of art practice, particularly for those at the early stages of a career, none had any money to pay for legal advice and help). By 1975 it had become clear to me that the artlaw problems my friends had encountered were also being regularly experienced by others and, moreover, that there were, few, if any, lawyers sufficiently versed in the law relating to the visual arts to provide the expert services required.

I applied for a research grant to the then Greater London Arts Association, to examine the problem: did artists in London have unmet needs for legal services; if so, to what extent, and what might be done about it? A small grant was received and as a result of the surrounding publicity and the research itself, I was approached by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which had already identified the need to investigate the legal needs of artists in the UK in the context of a major piece of research the Foundation had just then commissioned from Richard Hoggart: an enquiry into the economic situation of the visual artist in the UK.

It was agreed that this discrete legal facet of Hoggart’s enquiry would be dealt with separately by me, and I was given a research grant in 1976 to conduct a two-year study throughout the UK. It was at this point that I approached Arts Services Grants (which ran the AIR Gallery and SPACE from its Shaftesbury Avenue premises) for office space for the Artlaw Research Project. Peter Townsend was then Chairman of ASG and he not only supported my need for a small research office, but also (wearing his editorial hat) asked me to write the Artlaw Column for this then new journal.

October 1976 was auspicious, therefore, in seeing the birth of both this column and journal, and the launch of the Artlaw Research Project. I spent the next two years travelling throughout the UK meeting artists, public and private administrators, collectors, dealers and lawyers to discover the extent of any unmet need for specialist legal services for the visual arts.

During this so-called research period, it was impossible for me alone to deal with the thousands of urgent artlaw problems which the UK arts community threw at me and which needed to be dealt with immediately. I therefore started to call in favours from legal friends who were interested in helping, on a pro bono) basis. By the end of the two-year period, we had actually established an informal and free Artlaw Service provided by myself and my then young solicitor and barrister friends. At the same time, the Artlaw Column was an important regular vehicle for informing and, hopefully, educating in order to equip the readership with basic understandings of such things as: copyright; income tax; finding and maintaining a studio; exhibition contracts; contracts for studio sales and for public and private commissions.
By the end of 1978, the then Arts Council of Great Britain, the Arts Councils for Scotland and Wales, and the Crafts Council, were keen to provide public funds for the establishment of a national legal service for the visual arts and crafts in the UK. We held a Conference at Chelsea Art School where artists, artist craftsmen, public and private administrators, collectors, dealers and lawyers all endorsed the need for such a service to be established; a report was published by the Artlaw Research Project: ‘The Legal Situation of the Visual Artist in the UK’.

In 1979 Artlaw Services was established to provide three key services in the UK: a free information, advice and help service on legal matters relating to the visual arts and crafts; an education service and a publication service. A full-time London office was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the arts councils, to enable two art lawyers and support staff to manage the services. Artlaw Services was a charitable company limited by guarantee, and had a 15-member Council of Management: four lawyers including myself as chairman; an accountant; five artists; five arts administrators plus observers from the funding bodies. The free legal advice service worked in the following way: the two full-time Legal Directors received initial enquiries, dealing with straightforward matters in-house. All others were either referred to solicitors in private practice if the case was economic (in the sense that the artist could afford to pay for the legal advice and/or could achieve the grant of legal aid); the referral solicitors were recruited by Artlaw Services from lawyers throughout the UK who were interested or experienced in artlaw matters. Cases which were judged to be ‘uneconomic’ for a solicitor in private practice were referred to the Artlaw Clinic. This was a team of volunteer barristers and solicitors who attended the Artlaw office in the evenings to see clients (rather like Law Centres operate today); clients who could not attend the office were dealt with as best we could through correspondence. Again, Artlaw recruited, trained and managed the team of volunteer art lawyers. In this way, anyone in the UK who had an art-related legal problem was provided with appropriate advice and help from an experienced professional. Within a few years, Artlaw provided such legal services to hundreds of clients each year, representing in financial terms alone hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of support to the arts community in the UK; more than repaying in kind the investment of public monies paid to Artlaw by the various funding bodies.

To buttress this work, and to fulfil Artlaw’s overall mission of educating, informing and equipping the arts community to help themselves with artlaw matters as far as possible, we also carried out Education and Publication Services. We recruited and trained a panel of volunteer lecturers – lawyers, artists and administrators – who would visit art schools and other public and private institutions to deliver bespoke programmes or events dealing with what has in recent years become known as ‘professional practice studies’. In those days, we often referred to the Education Service as addressing the question ‘Is there life after art school?’. In 1981, our work was recognised by the Royal Society of Arts which gave it an ‘Education for Capability’ award. By that stage we were visiting nearly every art school in the UK and lecturing on most fine arts and related media courses.

Our Publications Service further reinforced our other two services, and publications included The Visual Artists Guide to Copyright; The Visual Artists Guide to Income Tax; Finding and Maintaining a Studio plus model forms of contracts for selling, exhibiting and commissioning work.

Sadly, by 1984, Artlaw Services had been wound up. This was because the funding bodies had been so squeezed by the incoming Conservative government of 1979 that decisions had been taken no longer to fund ‘service organisations’. Artlaw’s Council of Management decided that in the absence of direct public funds for its three core services, it would be inappropriate to try to limp along failing to provide a second-or third-rate version of any one or two of the services; or indeed to ask the arts community itself to pay for the services, since the original Research Project had shown and it had been universally accepted that the provision of the necessary artlaw services could not be afforded by practitioners in the community.

Over the last ten years or so, the impact of the work of Artlaw Services has still been felt. As mentioned earlier, art schools began themselves to develop our educational initiative to the point where, today, ‘professional practice studies’ is a common feature of courses for students in most art schools in the UK. Some of Artlaw’s original panel of lecturers have continued to respond to requests to visit and teach, including myself.

So far as expert artlaw advice and help is concerned, many of Artlaw’s volunteer lawyers subsequently developed their own practices and today offer expert professional services which had their genesis in the work done in earlier years in the Artlaw Clinic; some have become known partners in internationally respected solicitors’ firms. One firm in particular deserves mention in this context. The last two full-time Legal Directors of Artlaw Services were Mark Stephens and Roslyn Innocent; and when the organisation was wound up, they together immediately founded the firm known today as Stephens Innocent, specifically to provide specialist artlaw advice and help at a price the arts community could afford. That is now a well-established firm with offices in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Dublin.

As for publications, this column has ploughed a lone furrow for 20 years, and regular readers can judge its effect for themselves. In addition, in 1989 the then editor and proprietors of Art Monthly commissioned The Visual Arts and Crafts Guide to the New Laws of Copyright and Moral Rights, published in 1991, which dealt with the radical changes brought about by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. It is still in print and available from the Art Monthly office at the affordable price of £6.

Other notable publications include Art Within Reach also published by Art Monthly with Thames and Hudson, examining aspects of public commissioning; and the Artists Newsletter subsequently published material on artlaw matters, including regular artlaw features in the journal itself.

Ironically and coincidentally, I received only this month an enquiry from the Art Newspaper, which had just commissioned the preparation of an eight-page supplement on law, lawyers and the art market, for the October 1996 issue of the journal. The supplement’s prime aim is to make dealers and other participants aware of the role which the law plays in the market, and that a body of art-specific law is being generated. It is also intended to identify members of the legal fraternity able to advise and litigate in this area, so that these participants may find suitable specialists more easily.

Deja vu, indeed! Art Monthly has been tackling this self-same area through this column and generally throughout the past 20 years, and I should like to pay tribute here to the first editor Peter Townsend whose original idea gave birth to both the column and the journal itself; to Margaret Garlake, a former Assistant Editor, and Patricia Bickers, the subsequent editor, who have always seen the value and importance of this area of art practice and to Nell and Jack Wendler, Art Monthly’s proprietors, who have likewise always supported and encouraged the writing of this column.

It is undoubtedly the case, as evidenced by the Art Newspaper’s recent awakening to the need for artlaw specialists to be made readily available to those requiring them, that the need for such specialist services is even greater today than it was 20 years ago – particularly given the radically reduced public funding and support services for the visual arts which has occurred over the last 15 years or so, the succession of economic downturns during the same period and especially in the light of the effective abolition of visiting arts practitioners lecturing in UK art schools. Perhaps the final message from this particular ‘angel of history walking backwards into the future’ is that there are still serious and increasing unmet needs for the visual arts community to be provided with low or no-cost artlaw services, and that those responsible for supporting the visual arts in the UK should address and meet these needs.

© Henry Lydiate 1996


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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.