Friday, December 8, 2023

So, You Want to Be An Art Lawyer?

This is the second and updated version of my “So, you want to be an art lawyer?” blog post, originally posted on December 19, 2009. I am writing this version for three reasons: one, given how many hits this post has acquired; two, looking back at the 2008 economic crisis, and three, (and mostly) because of how many individuals contact me asking me for advise on how to become an art lawyer (incidentally, just today I received three e-mails from law students asking for this advise). So, here we go, an updated version with a few new thoughts and observations. I hope it’s helpful.

The 2008 economic crisis has not left the legal market untouched. Law schools, firms, nonprofit legal organizations, and legal practice have all been affected to some extent. Law schools are seeing a decrease in student enrollment. Law firms are taking fewer summer associates, and with the overflow of law students many that would normally go into law firm practice opt for nonprofit organizations, leaving fewer opportunities for law students.

Increasingly, many law school applicants and current law students (many with undergraduate studio art or art history degrees) are becoming interested in art law. This is not surprising, as recent legal battles between artists and artists and art institutions have attracted large amounts of media attention. Secondly, and arguably, the art market is at an all-time high, with extravagant amounts of money floating around a largely unregulated industry. And let’s be honest, where there’s money there are lawyers. Thirdly, the cliche still rings true: lawyers second-guess their current legal careers and think about jumping ship to another law-related career or pursue a different practice area. Confronted with this existential question, many lawyers opt for hot or up-and-coming legal areas. Others begin by asking themselves what makes them happy or what they like to do.

As an art lawyer, I am often asked about my career and if I like what I do. I am also asked for pointers on how to “get” where I am. In all honesty, I am unable to give a precise and succinct answer to these question because I too am perplexed by how I “got” here.

So, how do you become an art lawyer? Eleven starting points.

First of all, do what you love, and love what you do. As cheesy as that sounds it’s true. You have to have a passion for it, which means that you won’t find doing any of what I mention below to be boring, excruciating, or a chore. In case you didn’t know this, we are in an age of transparency and honesty, and with social media sites and the Internet the days of being able to fool others and be pretentious are over. If you’re doing this solely so you can hang out with rich and famous artists, you’ve got another thing coming. Artists aren’t stupid; they’ll see right through you, especially when they’re paying you. And, as I’ll explain further in number eight below, you’ll still be practicing law, so you’ll have to primarily love that.

This leads to my second point. Artists don’t like to feel or be made to feel that what they do is a hobby. Artists don’t want a lawyer to question their work and ask, “why is this art?,” and they certainly don’t want to have to convince you that what they’re doing is art. If you do that you’re certain to lose their respect and their business. Make an effort to understand contemporary art and an artist’s particular method of working. Artists are the opposite of lawyers: lawyers are risk-averse; artists are risk-takers. This distinction will lead to some difficult but necessary conversations with artists. You, the lawyer, will be forced to utter a word non-existent in an artists’ vocabulary: “no!”

Third point. Contemporary artists work in diverse media and the good artists (at least I think so), engage complex and controversial topics. You’ll probably have a traditional painter and sculptor as a client, but you’ll also have potential clients that pose unique and challenging legal problems for you. Here’s a short list of artists to give you a taste of what I’m writing about. Do yourself a favor and Google them and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.

(Christoph Büchel, Michael Asher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Adrian Piper, Santiago Sierra, Superflex, Tehching Hsieh, Gordon Matta-Clark, Larry Clark)

Fourth point: In order to better understand artists and their work, you must — must — visit art galleries, nonprofit art spaces and museums. Go to art openings, meet artists and ask them if you can do studio visits. If you like art and are seeking to support artists, buy art (it can also make a great investment). For intellectually rigorous projects, I personally recommend the Hirshhorn in D.C. and Dia:Beacon. Visit Marfa, Texas and view Donald Judd’s installation and collection of minimalist and conceptual art. The Power Plant in Toronto is also great, as is the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Enroll in a studio art course. This will not only energize the right-side of your brain, but more importantly it will give you a first-hand lesson in what artists face each time they go in to their studio. If you’re not much into getting dirty or moving materials around, try taking an art theory or art history course. I suggest something in modern or post-modern art. Don’t have time to take a full course? Check out your local museums and art institutions for art talks, panels and lectures, many of them free of charge.

Fifth point. Understand that artists and nonprofit art institutions have unique legal problems. The learning curve can be high, but certainly rewarding. However, artists and art institutions also face problems similar to other clients or legal issues you may have had. They’ll still need written agreements; have entity problems (LLCs, nonprofit corporations); if nonprofit, have state and federal regulations; they both need asset assessment and intellectual property rights protection; and they certainly need insurance. Do some research: some artists and art institutions care more about the content of their work than they do about the money. Which client do you prefer?

Keep in mind that the art law field may not be highly lucrative if you focus too narrowly or are too picky. With this in mind, the sixth point is to be willing to expand your clientele by having an expansive definition of art. Are you interested in representing fashion designers, actors, musicians, dancers or filmmakers? Will they be in a broad range of practice areas and styles, modern or post-modern? Will you focus solely on intellectual property? Will you represent artists or galleries, or both?

Seventh point. What background interests or experience do you have that could benefit artists? Think hard and make a list of services you could provide to this specific clientele. Do you speak a foreign language? Do you have a preferred legal area of interest (trust and estates, free speech, intellectual property, nonprofits). Do you have an MBA or other license that could deepen the services you provide for artists. Do you have an arts background? Where you a graphic designer? Are you a musician? Where you previously a gallery assistant or with a degree in art history?

Eight. Regardless, and most importantly, you’ll need to know the law and strengthen your repertoire. Take classes in copyright and trademark law, property law, negotiation, mediation, contracts and advanced contract drafting, cyberlaw or Internet law. How up to date are you in new technology and social media? Remember, artists are always a step ahead and looking for new means of communicating and spreading their ideas and thoughts. Mix this with their background in studio art and art history and you’ve got a plate full of information to catch up on.

So how do you start? Point nine: believe it or not the best way to learn is by doing pro bono or volunteer work for legal organizations such as Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in New York City (there are other VLAs in other states, so check to see if there’s one around you). There are also legal clinics affiliated with law schools across the U.S. that handle cases in art and entertainment law. Check those as well. Keep in mind that there are many low-income and mid-income artists who need legal services of all kinds. Many artists graduate from art school with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, so you won’t have to look too hard to find artists who would love pro bono work from qualified professionals.

Point ten. Speak with other art lawyers and art law scholars and professors. Ask them what they do on a daily basis and if they like what they do. Ask them about the boring parts as well, not just the exciting stuff.

Point eleven. Check out these two articles on art law and its practice. Not just because they both involve yours truly, but because they cover a wide and diverse array of practices and viewpoints on the field of art law.

The first, Sergio Munoz Sarmiento Merges Art & Law, written by Daniel Grant (who frequently writes on art law matters), overviews how I came to art law and what I do now.

The second, The Art of Law, The Law of Art (p. 18) is from Fordham Law School’s magazine, featuring a lengthy article on some New York-based art lawyers and law professors. Hope you enjoy both!

So what do you think? Are you ready to make the move? Keep these pointers in mind, and I hope they work for you. I’d be interested to hear what you think about them or if you have questions I didn’t address. E-mail me at and let me know. Good luck!



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Comments: 7

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  • Sharon Erwin

    All great points, especially the ientification of pro bono representation of artists through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts organizations as a way to start. Rewarding, educational and never dull. In most markets, it will be necessary to have a non-arts component to your practice to make it work financially, even after many years.

  • I’m impressed, I have to admit. Seldom do I come across a blog
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  • Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my
    comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just
    wanted to say superb blog!

  • Do you have any suggestions on which law school are best for art law?

  • Useful information. Fortunate me I found your site accidentally,
    and I am surprised why this twist of fate didn’t took place earlier!
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  • […] include regularly reading journals like Museums Journal and Arts Professional. There’s also great online resources like […]

  • Really great post. This answered the majority of my questions. When I read this I actually opened up a word document and started taking notes haha.

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