“Artists really seem to have a strange sense of ownership. I think most of us assume that a piece is always ours, before and after we die, and that anyone else who might 'own' it doesn't really possess it.”
My Uttar 240, 2006, encaustic on four panels, 48 x 67 inches, acquired by Mark Williams Design, Atlanta
When we sell one of our works, we relinquish physical ownership of the object. It is no longer ours. It has gone to (we hope) a good home. New artists have a hard time letting their work go, as if they’ll never make anything as good again. As we continue in our artmaking, we realize that part of our job is to continue to make work at that same level of creativity and achievement, so it’s easier to relinquish it. Besides, if we’re going to continue making art, we have to let some of it out the studio door. And if we hope to earn a living from our work, part of our job is to actively push it out.
Unless you or your dealer has a client sign a contract to stipulate how the artwork must be maintained and the circumstance under which it may be sold—and how many artists and dealers have this kind of power?—I suppose the new owner could do whatever s/he wanted. You hope they won’t let it disintegrate in storage out in the garage, or use it for target practice, or trade it for a horse, but you never know.
Postcard for my show at the Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta, 2006.
.Copyright issue: Marcia asked if I was OK with putting type on the image; I was, because doing so allowed the image to bleed to the edges. A sensitive and respectful dealer, she asked because the image was of my work, even though she was having the card made
While new owners may physically possess the work, artists retain copyright to the image. I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that I own the image of each piece of my work. That’s why a hotel corporation can’t, for instance, buy one of my paintings and then have thousands of giclees made to put into each room of its chain of hotels without my express permission. I could sell them the rights to reproduce a specific number, or I could license a particular image that would become part of the hotel’s visual identity (imagine images of your painting on the hotel’s stationary, advertising, and gift shop items; eek), or I could sell it outright (graphic designers get paid to do exactly this).
Relatedly, in a good way, last year four paintings of mine were acquired for a hospital collection. Some months later, after I’d received payment for the work, I signed a contract that allowed the corporation to use images of my work in two specific ways: to include it in the catalog it was producing of its collection, and to permit my paintings to be included in shots of the hospital walls, whether for the catalog or for publicity. The contract further stipulated that any image of my work would not be altered by cropping or Photoshopping, that the work would be identified, and I would be acknowledged as its maker. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do—good for me and for the gallery that brokered the sale.
On the flip side, even though the hospital corporation owns those four paintings, I can use images of those works on a postcard, on my website, or let them be used in a book. It’s nice to credit the owners of the work, or the collection, but I don’t believe it’s necessary.
Two resources here:
. Wikipedia for basic information on copyright
. Jackie Battenfield’s The Artist’s Guide for examples specific to the artist
Owning the Work Emotionally
My paintings remain “my” paintings no matter who owns them. I have the kinesthetic memory of making each work and, usually, an emotional attachment to it. Even years after the fact, I can remember making the painting, or have some memory of the process leading up to the act of paintings—stretching that particular canvas, or the particular brush I used to achieve a particular swath of color—even my emotional state the day I made it.
But I know from having my own collection of work by other artists, that I have a personal bond with those works, too. They belong to me as much as they belong to the artist who made each work. So I guess that here, we’re talking joint custody.
Over to You
How do you feel about the issue of ownership? Can you let the work go, no strings attached? Or to you retain a lifelong "possession" of the work? Stories, thoughts and emotional stream of consciousness welcome.