It’s a Wrap

Until 3 October 2021 a live stream from Paris shows the Arc de Triomphe entirely wrapped in fabric: a project conceived by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude over 60 years ago, which they developed and financed, but were unable to execute before their deaths in 2020 and 2010 respectively. This is a fitting fulfilment of a remarkable practice, demonstrating special knowledge and skills needed to achieve their conceptual environmental installations.

Realisation of their projects was effectively a legal and business obstacle course: to execute artwork that intentionally embraced the law as a tool for its creation, especially navigation of intellectual property laws operating both within the US – their adopted home – and countries beyond. From the outset of their practice in the 1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude developed the art of self-financing their projects through creative use of copyright. They embraced the fact that copyright ownership is an economic tool artists can use to monetise the fruits of their creative labours (and even for decades beyond death).

Most countries have enacted copyright laws giving their citizen-authors exclusive rights to control so-called merchandising of their original creative works. Although such laws are not all the same, they are similar because they observe agreed international standards. Examination of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ways of working will exemplify.

There is no copyright ownership of ideas. This means copyright law could not protect ideas to, for example: erect a fabric fence across 24 miles of California ranch land (Running Fence, 1972–76); wrap the Reichstag at Berlin, Germany, in polypropylene fabric covered with silvery aluminium (Wrapped Reichstag, 1971–95); wrap the Pont-Neuf in Paris, France, with sand-coloured polyamide fabric (The Pont Neuf, Wrapped, 1975–85); install 7,503 16ft-high gates of saffron-coloured fabric on paths in Central Park, New York City (The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979–2005). Or indeed to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in 25,000 square metres of recyclable polypropylene fabric in silvery blue, anchored with 3,000 metres of red rope (L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, Project for Paris since 1961, 2021). Anyone is legally free to copy such ideas and do likewise, or perhaps take the idea and use different material to wrap other things elsewhere, but this evidently did not concern Christo and Jeanne-Claude, because the world soon acknowledged them as progenitors of their public environment wrapping concept.

There can, however, be copyright ownership in the expression of ideas. This means copyright law could protect expressions of ideas in media/forms that can be seen/heard/read (and thus be recognised by the law). This so-called ‘idea-expression dichotomy/distinction’ is a legal doctrine evidently well-understood by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who shaped their practice accordingly. ‘Do you know that I don’t have any artworks that exist?’ Christo said, ‘They all go away when they’re finished. Only the preparatory drawings and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.’ More pragmatically, Jeanne-Claude said: ‘The only way to work in total freedom is to pay for it. When you accept outside money, someone wants to tell you what to do. So we fund each of our projects with our own money – through sales of Christo’s preparatory drawings, collages and early works. But we never know if they will sell fast enough to meet the expenses.’

So, there we have it: over six decades they created and owned copyright in volumes of preparatory project artwork, including two-dimensional plans, technical drawings, watercolours, paintings, prints and related three-dimensional artefacts; some of which they sold as unique or limited-edition objects, and/or reproduced/merchandised themselves or licensed others to do so. Such monetisation of their creative artwork was only one way to finance realisation of their projects.

As early as 1969 the artists introduced a further business dimension to their practice by establishing a separate legal entity, the CVJ Corporation registered in the US. ‘My Marxist education clearly helped me in using the resources of capitalism for my own ends,’ noted Christo, Jeanne-Claude adding: ‘But the reason for founding the corporation was mainly practical. For us it is very important to have a cash flow. We can pay for the early engineering studies for our projects because those bills come in sporadically. But when we start to hire workers to install the project, we have to meet the payroll every Friday. We can’t count on art sales to come in on time.’

CVJ Corporation owned most of the artists’ preparatory project artwork, which was safeguarded in several storehouses; the main one was located at Basel, Switzerland, where there was a full-time curator. Christo was blunt about the collection’s purpose: ‘When CVJ Corporation negotiates a credit line with a bank, these works of art serve as collateral. So they enable us to pay for our projects.’ It is not clear whether CVJ Corporation continued to operate beyond Christo’s death in 2020 to manage final conclusion of the Paris project, perhaps together with the separate Foundation established by the artists. In any event, during the decade following Jeanne-Claude’s death, Christo made sound business and financial plans to wrap the Arc De Triomphe – without him being hands-on. ‘I never thought it would ever happen,’ Christo admitted, ‘But I want you to know that many of these projects can be built without me. Everything is already written.’

Last but not least, Christo and Jeanne-Claude understood (doubtless advised by their art lawyers) that films and photographs of their public art projects, used for commercial purposes without the artists’ consent, were not permitted by laws in most countries. This was made clear in the 1980s: following realisation of The Pont Neuf, Wrapped, in Paris for 14 days in September 1985, the artists successfully sued two companies in France for violating copyright via commercial use of films and photographs of the installation without the artists’ permission.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s website confirms that L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, is realised with support from the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the City of Paris and Centre Pompidou, but is entirely funded by Christo’s estate through the sale of his preparatory project studies, drawings, collages and scale models. As with all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, access is free for all, 24 hours a day. Unwrapping will begin 4 October and the work will be gone by 10 November 2021.

© Henry Lydiate 2021

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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.