New York artist Alex Strada used to not give much thought to artist contracts. She’s hardly alone. Even though large swaths of the art world—from museum exhibitions to art fairs—depend on dense legal agreements, you’re not going to find a legal class on contracts as a required course at Columbia University’s visual arts program, from which Strada received an MFA in 2016.
But what if the invisible legal documents that make the art world go round were not only more conspicuous, but were also a mechanism through which to address the art world’s gender imbalance?
That’s the question Strada is posing through her recently unveiled artist contract, which, among other provisions, requires anyone who purchases one of her works to sell it 10 years later and use the accrued proceeds to buy a piece by an emerging female artist.
“Purchasing [my] work means buying into and supporting that fairly underrepresented demographic within the art market,” said Strada, herself an emerging female artist. The contract’s 10-year resale provision aims to project that support into the future.
. . . .
Strada was inspired by the Siegelaub agreement—a contract drawn up in 1971 by gallerist (and later textile artist) Seth Siegelaub and lawyer Robert Projansky that entitles artists to certain rights over their work after it is sold. For example, by signing the Siegelaub document, collectors agreed to pay artists 15% of the appreciated value of the purchased artwork if they resell it later (what’s called an artist’s resale royalty).
Siegelaub described his original contract, which has never been tested in court, as a “practical real-life, hands-on, easy-to-use, no-bullshit solution to a series of problems concerning artists’ control over their work.” In addition to helping address the economic imbalance between artist and collector, the contract also serves as something a piece of conceptual art itself. Attaching it to a sale makes an artistic statement as the legal document becomes inseparable from the artwork.
. . . .
“I was really excited by the idea that contracts could be a place to infuse my own political beliefs, feminist beliefs, and views of how the art market could potentially work,” Strada said.
PG says this works in the “Contract as Publicity Stunt” category. The chance of PG mentioning Ms. Strada in TPV was non-existent had she not undertaken her contractual innovation.
Is her contract enforceable? Only partially enforceable? Ditto for Mr. Siegelaub’s contract.
PG doesn’t know the answers to those questions. From a quick perusal of Ms. Strada’s contract, PG easily came up with some ways of circumventing the agreement that might work.
PG suspects the contracts would have a very short lifespan should the work ever fall under the jurisdiction of a bankruptcy court. Under Chapter Two of the Uniform Commercial Code, the contracts would seem to work, but whether a security interest in the artwork arises under Chapter Nine is a bit dodgier.
Most wealthy art collectors are likely to have carefully-crafted estate plans to control the disposition of their assets after their deaths and minimize estate and inheritance taxes. PG is uncertain how these artist contracts might affect those plans and what might happen if, for example, the estate plans called for the donation of the artwork to an academic institution or non-profit organization after death. Might a discerning institution reject the gift on advice of counsel?
And what happens when the artist dies? Is the owner of the artwork dealing with Uncle Ned and Aunt Stella in Wichita? Or the artist’s child, Flaming Star, Chairman of the Communist Party USA?
PG is not familiar with the decision-making process of art collectors when considering the acquisition of a work. He suspects more potential purchasers are aware of Ms. Strada and Mr. Siegelaub because of their contracts, so that might be a plus for the artists.
However, unless completely infatuated with the artist and excited about maintaining a continuing and binding legal relationship with that artist, probably for the remainder of somebody’s life or longer, some collectors might look for somewhere else to spend their money or make an offer to acquire the work contingent upon the absence of any innovative contracts.