An artist who painted three large murals to brighten the walls of a Brooklyn hospital has won compensation from the City of New York for the destruction of her work, which occurred without any prior notice to her. DWT was pleased to represent the client pro bono through the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts program.
From 2008 to 2010, Rachel Wells was engaged by Woodhull Medical Center, a hospital located in a low-income section of Brooklyn, to create a series of murals for the hospital’s Women, Infants, and Children Center. For one of the murals, Wells painted a lively playground scene; for another, a colorful collection of fruits and vegetables. On the walls of the center’s waiting room, she created a cozy depiction of a fire-lit living room, with a sleeping dog and cat.
The murals were enthusiastically received by patients and staff, and became an important part of Ms. Wells’ portfolio, which she hoped to use as a platform for additional commissions. But during a remodel of the hospital last year, the murals were destroyed—without any prior notice to Ms. Wells.
She sought help from Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a legal aid program for low-income artists and non-profit arts organizations. Two DWT associates—Lisa Keith and Jeremy Chase—raised their hands to take the case. They were overseen by DWT partner Chris Robinson, a former art dealer with extensive knowledge of art law.
“The murals were beautiful and Ms. Wells was understandably devastated by the City’s destruction of them,” says Chase.
The associates contacted the hospital’s medical director to let him know that the hospital had violated Ms. Wells’ “moral rights” under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990. Specifically, the law requires that if a building’s owner wishes to remove a work of visual art that is integrated into a building, the owner must first notify the artist and give her an opportunity to do that removal—if it can be done without destroying the work.
“Courts have expressly held that, for purposes of the statute, most murals can be removed without destroying them,” says Keith.
Though VARA rights can be waived by contract, Wells had not done so. Through negotiations with the City of New York, which oversees the hospital, Keith and Chase were able to win a $20,000 settlement for their client in March.
“The client is very happy,” says Robinson. “This is an action she wouldn’t have been able to afford to bring herself. And it’s vindication for the appalling destruction of something important to her.”