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.
By last spring, with the center running a $10,000-per-month deficit and paying its utility bills with grant money, Arrowood's short-lived successor asked the city commission for emergency assistance. Since then city hall has made advances on some grant money, picked up the center's utility bills, and taken over some maintenance duties. The city has so far passed on the idea of making the center a branch of city government and transforming staffers into city employees.
Miller, the latest director, says things are looking up. "In terms of patronage, people coming to the museum, I think we can honestly say we've seen modest increases," she says, noting recent donations by the Hollywood Rotary Club and developer Michael Swerdlow. "Frankly I don't see that there is any alienation left in the artistic community, at least not that I'm aware of."
With one glaring exception. For years painter David Maxwell has done his best to gall and embarrass the Hollywood art center with inflammatory statements to reporters, wittily scathing letters to board members and fellow artists, and a steady stream of public criticism. Maxwell describes himself as the would-be "satirist laureate of Hollywood" and says his efforts are all in good fun. Arrowood calls Maxwell a dangerous kook obsessively bent on avenging the 1995 ouster of Wendy Blazier, the curator Arrowood fired.
"There's no doubt in my mind Maxwell has been the center of all of this," Arrowood sniffs. "He's the one who researched the law. He's the one who found it on the books, who got it to Leviton. Leviton did not come up with this on his own."
Not so, says Leviton's lawyer, Andrew Henschel, who has advised his client to clam up. Nor is Leviton out to hurt the art center. The point, says Henschel, is that Leviton's reputation and pocketbook have been badly damaged. "The devastating thing is that this didn't happen at the hands of a private collector going out and purchasing some painting and deciding that, hey, it doesn't fit my wall so I'm going to distort the image or throw it away," Henschel states. "This happened in a museum, and they should have known better."
Henschel's opponent-to-be in federal court, Ronald Ponzoli, is being paid by the center's insurance company. With 32 years' experience as a trial lawyer, Ponzoli doesn't come cheap, and he's already proven his skill in legal maneuvering. In his most recent response to the lawsuit, Ponzoli suggests that if a culprit exists, it isn't the artist or the art center.
The alleged sculpture-smashing incident, Ponzoli says, "[w]as directly related to actions of the City of Hollywood, which municipal entity, considered the items to be a hazard and removed the property, or the property was removed at the direction of the City of Hollywood, and therefore the actions complained of were not the actions of this defendant."
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Jamie Cole, the sprightly city attorney of Hollywood, calls the accusation "a bit bizarre," and says he suspects it's just one of many feints and jabs to come in what will surely be a court case full of legal artistry. "A city can't be sued for properly issuing citations that ultimately lead to a party allegedly intentionally damaging a piece of art," Cole harrumphs. "It's extremely far-fetched."
All of the legal eagles agree the case is unusual and sure to be lots of fun.
"But it's not that complicated," Ponzoli claims. "Was the artwork of a recognized stature? Has the artist's honor been damaged by the elimination of the items? Was there intentional or gross negligence?"
Ponzoli refused to say more. "I hear attorneys make all sorts of wild-ass statements to the press. I have the highest respect for the fourth estate but I don't want to litigate this in New Times.