The Visual Artists Rights Act

In 1981, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc sculpture in New York City’s Federal Plaza became the center of debate on Artist rights. Federal Plaza employees saw his curving wall of raw steel measuring 120-feet long and 12-feet high as ugly and oppressive.

Serra wanted viewers to experience the sculpture in a physical way, causing them to move to the sides on the hulking steel behemoth during their commute to the surrounding government buildings, and believed public art could expose and critique the surrounding public space without the obligation to beautify it. Three years later a 1,300-signature petition catalyzed a movement to remove Titled Arc. The verdict, after a five-year long discussion between the creative communities, art critics, public officials, and the general public, was to remove and destroy the piece. This became the rallying cry about artist rights, the right of an artwork owner, copyright, and free speech.

On December 1, 1990 congress enacted Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA to protect artists’ work from mutilation, misattribution, or destruction. VARA provides protection to paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and still photographic images produced for exhibition only and existing in single copies or in limited editions of 200 or fewer copies which are signed and numbered by the artist. The requirements for protection do not implicate aesthetic taste or value. While VARA establishes specific federal rights, additional protections are often available under state statutes.

VARA provides the following rights to visual artists:

  • Right to claim authorship
  • Right to prevent the use of one’s name on any work the author did not create
  • Right to prevent use of one’s name on any work that has been distorted, mutilated, or modified in a way that would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation
  • Right to prevent distortion, mutilation, or modification that would prejudice the author’s honor or reputation

Artists, you and your work have protection under federal law! Collectors, become familiar with these rights so you do not end up accidently violating them.