Saturday, January 7, 2023

It's Only Paint . . . or Is It?

Back in September, the plans to paint 529 Warren Street with diagonal stripes sparked a conversation about paint, both paint color and paint application patterns, among the members of the Historic Preservation Commission. 

During the discussion, which at one point touched on murals, Victoria Polidoro, legal counsel to the HPC, cautioned that any attempt to ban or regulate murals might violate First Amendment rights. On the larger topic of the use of paint in historic districts, Polidoro recommended that the HPC form a working group to study the issue and come up with a proposal. To Gossips' knowledge, no such group has been formed, but if and when it happens, there is another thing the group will have to take into consideration: VARA, the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990

Earlier this week, VARA was the topic of discussion on WAMC's Copyright Forum. It was explained that VARA protects public art. Under VARA, murals painted on buildings cannot be damaged or destroyed even if artists have not registered the copyright or have given up the copyright. The artwork is protected for the artist's lifetime.

Most of the conversation about VARA and its ramifications for murals takes place in the first 13 minutes of the show, but at about 23 minutes in, a caller asks if he would be free to paint over a mural if he had entered into a contract with the artist that specified the contract was good for two years. The caller was told the artist would have to waive the copyright in order to do that. One panelist opined, speaking of the proposed contract, "An artist would be a fool to sign it." The show's host interjected, "The owner of the building would be a fool to sign it if he knew that in perpetuity he couldn't do anything with the building." One of the panelists corrected him, saying, "It's only the lifetime of the artist. Not quite in perpetuity." Another panelist offered the opinion that such a contract would be enforceable because the artist was agreeing in writing. It is only late in the discussion that it is clarified that VARA applies only to the work of "an artist of known stature." 

The entire discussion on the Copyright Forum can be heard here. More information about VARA can be found here.


  1. What if the art, or a portion of it, is found offensive to some? Who might the morality police be? The swastika design has been around for a while in other cultures besides Nazi Germany - a wall of swastikas, or even one big one, should probably be fine. Nudity? Two faces with their tongues intertwined? Donald Trump's face? Murals can be great, we just shouldn't have them on buildings.
    Jeez, artists are so friggin sensitive!

  2. The exact language: and no where do I see "... VARA applies only to the work of "an artist of known stature.""

  3. So if I live in the Historic District and paint my home as a mural or a pattern, that's ok? I thought approval was needed first?