You Call This Art and Culture?

Allegations of sculpture-smashing land the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood in federal court -- just when it needs trouble the least

Around midnight on October 27, 1990 -- the last minutes of the 101st Congress -- Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts amended a bill designed to create 85 new federal judgeships. The House approved the amendment, and so did Kennedy's exhausted fellow senators. President Bush promptly signed the bill, eager as he was for the judgeships. In this way the Visual Artists Rights Act also became the law of the land.

For most of U.S. history, artists and other citizens have been protected under copyright law against those who would make improper commercial use of their creations. Kennedy's amendment goes considerably further. Adopting the French legal concept of droit moral or moral right, the law gives painters and sculptors a weapon against modification of a work that might hurt their reputations. Certain artists can now prevent "any intentional or grossly negligent destruction" of a work of "recognized stature."

The law has been spottily and inconclusively tested in California and New York, most notably in a case that pitted three sculptors against bad-tempered hotel queen Leona Helmsley. In 1994 Helmsley threatened to demolish and remove a sculpture made of old car parts and recycled glass that stood in the lobby of an office building she wanted to sell. An appellate court upheld the Visual Artists Rights Act but denied the artists an injunction to stop the sale, and last year the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reconsider the case. The sculpture remains intact because Helmsley decided to keep the office building.

Now a Florida jury may hear about the obscure statute in a federal courtroom in Fort Lauderdale. The plaintiff: Marc Leviton, a former New York electrician who moved to South Florida six years ago and began a second career as a sculptor. He painstakingly gathers motorcycle frames, used auto parts, electrical wiring, and computer chips, and uses them to create sculptures of various sizes that move, light up, and make noise. The defendant: Hollywood's Art and Culture Center, a city-owned community art school and exhibition space that for years has struggled to pay its bills while enduring vicious administrative infighting and stormy relations with local artists. "If it goes to trial and damages are awarded, it'll be a first in the nation," says Daniel Weiner, who represented the artists in the Helmsley imbroglio. "There have been fewer cases than I have fingers on my hand, and all the others have settled out of court. Our case went to court, but we were only seeking an injunction, not damages."

In his lawsuit the 35-year-old Leviton says the center's former director smashed up several of his sculptures, threw them in a pile, and had a city trash crew haul away the pieces. The ex-director, Rick Arrowood, calls the allegation "as false as false can be," and says Leviton is an artist all right -- a flim-flam artist. Arrowood never disassembled anything, he says, but merely ordered some of Leviton's raw materials -- "bicycle parts, shovels, different metal parts with jagged edges" -- carted away after Leviton failed to heed phone calls and a written request. The city had threatened to fine the center for an unsightly and hazardous mess.

Each side accuses the other of lying to cover its ass, for if Leviton's account is true, Arrowood and the center may be liable for damages under federal law. On the other hand, if Arrowood's version of the incident is accurate, Leviton may not have a case. A jury may be asked to grapple with the age-old question of what art is, in this instance whether Leviton's "found objects," even unassembled, constitute works of art.

The alleged sculpture-smashing took place in September 1995 when Leviton was being ousted as artist-in-residence at the Art and Culture Center. At the time the dispute seemed like a passing, personal tiff between Arrowood, a fiscal toughie, and Leviton, a hot-blooded visionary. Instead of fading away, though, the dispute has grown ominously formal.

New leadership at the nonprofit art center is plainly dismayed by Leviton's pursuit of unspecified damages "in excess of $100,000."

"I don't think that it ever occurred to anyone that this would be the result of that incident," says Cynthia Miller, an art historian who was named director of the center eight months ago. "Curatorially, fiscally, administratively, and in terms of our credibility, I think for the judgment to go against us would be devastating."

Three weeks ago Miller and other new leaders threw a "rededication" of the Art and Culture Center at which the building was wrapped with paper and topped with a giant bow and then ceremonially unwrapped. From afar the event looked like a goofy marketing gambit, but for those familiar with the history of South Broward's only visual-arts center, the symbolism was apt and the rededication nothing less than an effort at demon exorcism.

Long before 1990 when the center moved from a site on Ocean Boulevard to a former funeral home on Harrison Street, the institution had established itself as a political football. The move in itself generated controversy because city commissioners had paid $1.5 million for the property based on a single land appraisal. (Later appraisals valued the funeral home at much less, contributing to the one-term ouster of Mayor Mara Giulianti.) In 1995 the center's long-time curator, its music director, director of education, and artist-in-residence -- Marc Leviton -- were forced out by the newly appointed Arrowood, a businessman with scant experience in museum management. Arrowood's defenestration of top staffers helped alienate hometown artistes, and the ensuing publicity scared off patrons. He resigned in February 1997 amid allegations that he falsified grant applications. Since departing South Florida, Arrowood has entered law school and plans to specialize in the burgeoning field of art law.

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