Dire Straits: in the gallery

Although great strength and power can be drawn from legal information and knowledge, the processes of applying and using the law are often regarded as too cumbersome, complex and costly to be of any real use in an emergency. Not so. The following cases contain sufficient suspense and high drama coupled with pragmatic action to form the basis of an excellent movie scenario.

It was late and the phone rang again. It was one of those calls beginning ‘You don’t know me, but…’. Even lawyers can’t see sculpture in the dark, so we agreed to meet at nine the following morning. Dressed in my powder-blue jeans, with dark blue shirt, tired expression and no display handkerchief, I met my partner off the eastbound train. Old Bailey – immaculate to the waist, jeans below. I guessed he hadn’t been home.

We arrived late, and I picked out our client as the coldest and only man standing in front of the Town Hall. Behind him a large wooden structure was enclosed by crush barriers and winking lights; the Saturday morning shoppers appeared not to have noticed. Our client explained that the Council were worried that passers-by were in mortal danger from falling timber and protruding nails, and followed this with a swift demonstration of the strength of the piece through a slick up-and-over climb. He was not a light man. I made a quick circuit of the site and suggested we continued the necessary surveillance from the pub window.

Through throbbing jukebox bass-lines and the purple haze of tobacco smoke, our client’s voice rapped out the facts. This was the deal: council gallery to make all necessary arrangements for siting the piece and then organise a special public viewing in ten days time, at the end of the show; our client to erect the piece according to agreed designs and maquettes. The situation became clear. Someone hadn’t consulted the Building Inspector.

Unlike artists and lawyers, I suspected that building inspectors spent weekends off duty. I was right. In our view there was no real likelihood of danger and our client was therefore prepared to assert his contractual right to show the piece unhindered.

We hit the street just as the snow began to fall, and the silence was pierced only by loud metallic rings. Over my shoulder I caught a final glimpse of a dark woollen-hatted figure stacking crush barriers against the Town Hall wall. As we drove away I knew we’d be hearing more when the wheels of bureaucracy started moving on Monday morning.

It was going to be a heavy day. The four-flight walk up to our office was never easy, especially Monday mornings, and the persistent ringing of the phone through the glass door had to be that call. I was wrong.

It was a novel opening gambit.

‘Do you know the Stonewall Jackson Gallery?’
‘Yes’. I’d never met Mr Arlo Jackson, but his reputation preceded him; I was intrigued.
‘I just had a one-man show there. Nearly all my work’s been sold. A cheque for £2,000 in part-payment has bounced twice and the gallery is about to fold. Mr, Arlo Jackson won’t see me. What do I do?’

I guess the stairs had something to do with it, or maybe too many Disques, but he certainly was breathless when he flopped into the old green leather chair reserved for clients. Wrong again. He was just really anxious, agitated and strained; and who wouldn’t be, facing the imminent prospect of two year’s work, £2,000 and Mr Arlo Jackson doing a simultaneous vanishing act. We needed to move fast.

My client split to get a van; I changed into my three-piece pinstripe, grabbed my briefcase, and met him outside the Stonewall Jackson Gallery within the hour. While my client loaded all his work into the van, I kept the gallery assistant fully occupied, offering to speak with Mr Arlo Jackson, explaining the extraordinary but lawful actions of my client, and demanding full statements of account and/or immediate cash settlement for all my client’s sales – pointing to the red stickers on each of the pieces as they passed out into the van in the street. Although I drew blanks, my client drew away with his works in the back of the van.

In both these cases, the actions taken helped to preserve the status quo by underpinning the artist’s strongly felt moral or integrity rights in the work; this was done through the use and application of basic legal rights in it. But to do this, both artists needed access to swift sympathetic and understanding legal information, knowledge and emergency help – the right of every citizen. And so, professional artistic integrity was, to a certain degree, preserved through the help of Artlaw. But what, if anything, was there to be done further to assert that integrity and, perhaps, ensure that others were not treated similarly in the future?

In the first case, bureaucracy did further interfere, and Artlaw negotiated a compromise solution; that barriers be replaced until the special view arranged for the end of the show. After that, the artist could sue to compensate for loss of time, money and materials in designing and erecting the piece and attending the site to prevent its hindered viewing or removal; and, most importantly, for loss of vital exposure from a first exhibition of a single piece of work in a public space.

In the second case, although the paintings appeared to have been ‘sold’ because they had red stickers on them, it would be for the gallery to prove actual sales by producing bills of sale and statements of account, in which case the artist would then be entitled to full payment and the work would be returned to the gallery.

The further courses of legal action open to both artists probably would not end up in court. It would be very likely that because they were both properly asserting their professional artist’s rights (through strong legal claims), both galleries would settle the disputes amicably and equitably out of court: the council gallery by paying for lost time, money and materials and offering another similar show; the private gallery by paying up.

© Henry Lydiate 1979
*With deferential thanks to Mark Knopfler.

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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.