Friday, August 7, 2020

Who Owns Commissioned Artwork?

Joaquin Barriendos-Rodríguez sends us this information on what seems like an interesting panel at the Lecture Hall of the Chelsea College of Art and Design. Two corrections to keep in mind: Mass MoCA sued Christoph Büchel seeking a court order that would allow them to exhibit Büchel’s art work without his consent, and two, Büchel did not abandon the installation.

The link provided is dead, but we are trying to locate a live link. The lecture takes place on March 30th, 2009. Speakers include:

Daniel McClean, Withers LLP; Kate Bush, Head of Art Galleries, Barbican; and Prof. Elke Bippus, University of the Arts, Zurich/Switzerland. It’s unfortunate that none of the lawyers that represented (or are representing) Büchel, were asked to speak. Büchel is currently appealing the district court’s opinion. For more information on the appeal, click here.

From the announcement:

History reveals that the relationship between artists, their commissioners and collectors has always been fraught; from Whistlers” famous dispute in the 19th century with Lord Eden over a commissioned painting that Whistler refused to deliver; to Richard Serra”s failure in the 20th century, to prevent the removal of his site-specific sculpture, “Tilted Arc”.

Historically, artists have lacked so-called “moral rights” in the UK and US jurisdictions to prevent the mistreatment of their artworks once they have been sold and to thereby prevent damage to their artistic reputation. This has contrasted to civil law countries like France and Germany, where artists” moral rights have been championed.Only in 1988 (in the UK) and 1990 (in the US), did the legal protection of artists expand to encompass the right of authors of original artworks to object to the derogatory treatment of their artworks (thereby protecting their honour and reputation) and to ensure that artists would be correctly attributed as the authors of their works.

Moral rights were at the heart of the recent high-profile case of The Museum of Contemporary Arts, Massachusetts vs. Christoph Büchel (2007). Büchel tried to prevent MoCA, Mass. from exhibiting his unfinished installation after he had abandoned it, claiming that it would damage his artistic reputation. The judge ruled that the Museum could exhibit the work but would need to publish a disclaimer explaining that the work is unfinished. Although this seems like a victory for the commissioning institution, the case raises unwelcome questions about the ethical position of museums and galleries when dealing with the works of artists.

But what could be the consequences of such cases for future art commissions? Will artists be requested to waive their moral rights in contracts with commissioning institutions thereby leaving their artworks vulnerable to derogatory treatment? And what is the position of the commissioner or collector when the artist has died? How far should commitment to the moral rights of an artist go when, for example, an installation is complex and needs the artist”s collaboration and authorisation before it can go on public display?



No comments so far.
  • Leave a Reply
    Your gravatar
    Your Name


Clancco, Clancco: The Source for Art & Law,, and Art & Law are trademarks owned by Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento. The views expressed on this site are those of Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento and of the artists and writers who submit to They are not the views of any other organization, legal or otherwise. All content contained on or made available through is not intended to and does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is formed, nor is anything submitted to treated as confidential.

Website Terms of Use, Privacy, and Applicable Law.

Switch to our mobile site