Can Detroit Artist's Lawsuit Protect Her Mural From Building Owners?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on January 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Detroit artist is suing under federal law to protect a mural she made from destruction by new building owners. The mural is considered a symbol of the rising stature of the North End neighborhood where the building stands, and the artwork is said to have contributed to the area's reputation.

But now the developer wants to put windows in the building or maybe even sell it altogether and is offering the artist a minimal sum, accordng to the Detroit Free Press. Katherine Gibbs, the artist who made "The Illuminated Mural" is fighting to protect her work under the Visual Arts Rights Act of 1990, which safeguards works from "distortion, mutilation, or other modification ... which would be prejudicial to [the artist's] honor or reputation." Will she succeed?

100 Gallons and a Grant

The mural in question has been called "drop-dead gorgeous" (although that is only one opinion and the painting is arguably crude). It was painted with tens of thousands of dollars in grant money when Gibbs was an art student in Detroit. In other words, Gibbs is no graffiti artist working secretly at night, nor is she considered to be defiling Detroit. Her suit also seeks protection for the mural under aspects of VARA that bar destruction of works with recognized stature, including murals on buildings.

"The Illuminated Mural" was made with 100 gallons of technicolor paint dripped down the side of the building. It is meant to look as if the sky is crying colorful tears, and it certainly has fans amongst art critics and regular citizens of Detroit.

Painting Precedent

While it is not yet clear how Katherine Gibbs will fare in court, there is some precedent for her suit. Los Angeles muralist Kent Twitchell sued the federal government after it painted over his famous 1987 mural "Ed Ruscha Monument" on the side of a building in LA in 2006.

Twitchell won a $1.1 million settlement, although this can hardly be considered a win considering his work was destroyed. Gibbs hopes that her mural will remain unmolested.

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