Marketing Mondays: Who Owns Your Work?

Posted yesterday: Lee Bontecou at MoMA
In a recent post, The Sofa, in which I talked about options for artists who don’t want to sell their work commercially, reader Mead McLean left a comment that becomes the germ of today’s post:

“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

Owning the Actual Object
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


Owning Copyright
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.


arvind said...

I remember seeing on tv something about this Dutch painter Herman Brood: he entered the house of someone who had one of his paintings on the wall. He looked at it and decided "no, this piece wasn't finished", then pulled out a marker and put some new lines on the painting. "Now it is", he said. The owner of the piece wasn't happy :-)

M said...

This was an excellent summary of an artist's copyright in their work.

Luckily it is one of the ways artists can extend their income after a work is sold. I'm wondering if you have any experience/interest with resale right that many countries have. If a work is resold by an dealer the artist receives a set percentage of the sale. This right was recently acquired by artists in the United Kingdom and Australia. Artist groups in Canada are now heavily involved in the same issue. It is huge for well established artists whose work has escalated in price since it was first sold. The resale right is also held by the artist's estate for the established length of the copyright (depends on the country). Such rights really make a difference to the financial bottom line for artists.


I have no problem letting go of my work. I feel like our talents and art are meant to be given. However as I say this half a wall full of paintings seems to be sending me the message, "we aint goin nowhere pal (severe failure to launch issues).
But I was wondering about a related issue. Does anyone know if It's legal for a collector to intentionally damage a work they've purchased?

Amanda said...

I was talking with an older sculptor a couple years ago, and his words about the emotional ownership of his work struck me. He said that when he has polished the last part of the wooden sculpture, and stands before the finished piece, he is at peace with the artwork. His job is complete, and the sculpture is no longer his, but the world's (or whoever decides to buy it). That may sound a little fluffy and philosophical, but I think he had a great point. Our focus as creators is to share our creations with the world. It is an honor to share/sell my paintings with someone, and I do have an emotional connection to them, but once they leave my studio, they are not mine anymore.
I love reading your blog, Joanne- thanks for writing!

Lisa McShane said...

They leave home - they don't write, they don't call...

When I'm done I'm truly done. I want them to leave and not come home again. Although I find that I do miss a few and I'm getting better at figuring out which ones those are ahead of time so I don't put them up for sale.

Not on point but I love seeing your work hanging in that room. It is really beautiful and fits so well.

Mead McLean said...

Agreed. It's insanely important to keep a handle on copyright laws and how they might come into play. That list of art lawyers (who tend to work for little money) in each state is a great list to keep around.

Personally, I become attached to certain pieces over time. I call these the "survivors", because these are the ones that I don't throw away when I move. I also try to keep one piece from each major series, just to have a physical record.

Most of the time, when I sell things, I know where the pieces are going, and it's usually to someone I know personally. It's nice to go have dinner with a friend and see your work on their wall. I'd rather know that people are looking at my work every day than have them in storage in my studio.

Larry said...

"But I was wondering about a related issue. Does anyone know if It's legal for a collector to intentionally damage a work they've purchased?"

Anonymous said...

For another perspective on issues of ownership and sharing art, take a look at Bill Liebeskind's Gift Project ( Something quite profound about what he's doing...

Eva said...

More than once a friend who then collected my work has said to me:
"Aren't you glad a friend has it? You can always visit it." I smile. But actually I don't care.

Just because we're friends doesn't mean I always agreed with their taste or what else they had in their house. It's all good - but I've moved on. And I sort of have to.

Pamela Farrell said...

Joanne: This is a great MM topic! The idea of ownership is something I think about a lot. For some reason, I can let go of certain pieces easier than others, but I've stopped trying to figure out why.

When I sold one of my first "major" pieces, it was one of those I was attached to, and I still "miss" it every once in a while. But Joanne, you were present when I sold that piece, and mentioned something that I've never forgotten (and I paraphrase here): It is alright, and sometimes important to hold on to key pieces for my own collection.

At that moment, I was so excited about having the painting sell, that I remember thinking, or maybe even said, that the idea of keeping work had never crossed my mind. But now, some years and numerous sales later, I can see the wisdom in that. Owning a "legacy" collection seems increasingly important, not only as my career grows and the work becomes more accomplished, but as I grow older, I see it as an investment of sorts, and a record of where I've been and what I've been doing. (Maybe the topic of artists building collections of their own work could be a MM post.)

But in general, I'm with the folks who commented about putting the work out there to be seen, to be collected. For the most part, I feel that is why I paint: to share the work, for it to be part of a larger dialogue, and sometimes for someone to fall in love with a piece that they just have to have for their own.

The pieces I keep are those that tend to be unique, not necessarily part of a series, and sometimes are experimental or transitional. And sometimes, I just make art for myself.

Thanks for the post!

andrea said...

As someone who has never had trouble letting work go I was curious as to whether I'd feel differently when my personal favourite sold recently. I never even thought about again -- until I read this post! As far as my work is concerned, my mind is always in the future.

Georgia Gray said...

It's different for me, Joanne - I sometimes forget my paintings and am surprised when I visit someone who has one. I often don't remember the process or the finished piece. I have to have photos to help.
I saw a hilarious documentary about Jeffery Smart. He had a huge retrospective at the Sydney Art Museum. Many of the pieces were borrowed from private collections and worth a fortune. He went around with his paint brush and tried to alter some pieces. The director was nearly having a heart attack. Did he have the right to make changes??
- Georgia Gray

Catherine Carter said...

I think Amanda has said it well.

Some thoughts ... I have a BLAST making paintings, but as soon as I'm done with a piece or a series, I want to move on and try a different color, type of mark, etc.

I'm proud of what I've made, so it makes me happy to see it out in the world where others can enjoy it.

I want to clear my studio space of old expressions to make way for the energy of the new.

Making and selling paintings is my job as an artist. Beautifying someone's space (and hopefully inspiring their imagination too) is the service I provide as a professional, just as a dentist fills teeth or a plumber fixes pipes. said...

A couple of you asked about artists repainting their own work. I'm no expert in this area, but I do know that conservators absolutely don't want the artists anywhere their work. Their feeling is that we are more likely to change it in the process or repairing, while the conservators' mandate is to repair doing as little as possible to change it.

I would think that once we sell a work, the physical piece is no longer our to change. Can the owner change it? If there's no contract specifically prteventing such action, I would guess they could. (Any attorneys reading who wish to weigh in?) Back in art school, I'd done a (bad) painting of a female figure in warm tones. My friend's mother liked it, so I gave it to her. Some months later when I visited, I saw a vaguely familiar composition in blues and greens. The mother had repainted it to "go with the room." Eek.

APam: Thanks for the suggestion. Sometime soon I'll post about "The Artist's 401-k"--i.e. retaining work from our own collection (or trading).

Rob said...

The first comment reminds me of a story I read from one of the Johnson clan about Frank Lloyd Wright "visiting" in their house he designed. He would often show up, unannounced, and move the furniture back where he thought it should be.

Hylla Evans said...

Copyright Law:
Visual Artists have the right to attribution and the right to integrity. When displayed to the public, the author (artist) must be named. When a work changes hands, the new owner is forbidden by law from defacing the work, period.

Lisa Kairos said...

I feel a strong attachment to what I create, but I also firmly believe that the work is meant to go out into the world, and be something for other people as well. I don't often miss a piece- and have learned to hold back at least one special piece from each body of work to keep for myself and my family. I disagree though, that the idea of continued emotional ownership is something distinct to artists, or that it is strange. My father, an electrical engineer, designed and had a hand in building many of the produce warehouse refrigeration and packing systems for the Salinas valley here in California. If driving by, he'll still refer to them as "his" systems. I think this idea of continued emotional ownership is often intrinsic to making things, whether it is a building, a bridge, clothing, computer code, a latte, or art.

Ann L. E. Bach said...

Your usual excellent post, Joanne.
Familar with Visual Artist Rights Act of 1974? We have Richard Serra's persistence to thank for it!

Martha Markline Hopkins said...

My ex son-in-law sold one of my early major paintings that he had bought. I have a sense of loss, and would like to know who has it. The story is murky - something about a consignment shop. Not good.

How to I become a follower of your blog? I love it. Karen Jacobs told me about it.