Vermont Court Rules that Law School May Conceal Controversial Mural Without Violating Artist’s Rights

The U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont recently held that Vermont Law School could conceal two controversial murals without violating the artist’s rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act (“VARA”).  Put simply, VARA gives the author of a work of visual art the right to, among other things, prevent the intentional distortion, modification, or destruction of a piece of artwork by the eventual owner.

In this case, the law school contracted with an artist to paint the murals in 1993. The murals, which were intended to depict the evils of slavery and the efforts of abolitionists in Vermont to aid slaves on the Underground Railroad, were the subject of student complaints that the murals depicted enslaved individuals in a “cartoonish, almost animalistic” manner. In 2020, the law school’s administration decided to conceal the murals by building a wooden frame around the murals that would support acoustic panels.  The artist who painted the murals argued that the planned concealment was a violation of his rights under the VARA because it would modify and destroy the work.  The court ruled in favor of the law school, finding that the plan to conceal the murals did not constitute the distortion, modification, or destruction of the artwork.

Many school districts in Illinois have murals incorporated throughout their buildings and should be aware that the original artists may have certain rights attached to the artwork, depending on the age and the type of work.  If a district is considering hiring an artist to paint a mural, the district should carefully review the contract to make sure the artist waives their rights under VARA.  If a district is considering destroying or modifying an existing mural due to construction or remodeling, the district should first determine if the mural is protected by the VARA and then check the original contract for the mural to see if VARA rights were waived at the time and notify the artist of the planned destruction of the mural. If not, the district should consider whether another exception to the VARA applies before destroying the mural.

If you have any questions concerning VARA or the removal of artwork on school premises, please contact Vanessa Clohessy.

Source: Kerson v. Vermont Law School, Inc., 5:20-cv-202 (D. Vt. 2021)