Late Wednesday afternoon, 12 prominent artists sued the City of Memphis in a Memphis federal court over the destruction by the City of five murals in response to criticism of the art by the Memphis City Council. The artists claim that the City’s actions violated a federal law known as the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which protects against the unlawful destruction of visual art like the murals.
The artists, including a number of world famous street artists and muralists, sued over the City’s unannounced painting over in January 2018 of five artworks painted by the plaintiffs, as well as the City’s threats, approved by the City Council, to paint over and destroy three other artworks.
The artworks were painted on City property under a program approved by the City and run by local nonprofit Paint Memphis, Inc. The nonprofit commissioned the artwork and selected the artists.
The 12 artists who are plaintiffs are represented by Eric M. Baum of Eisenberg and Baum LLP, of New York City, who successfully obtained a $6.7 million verdict in federal court in New York against New York City property owners who destroyed public artwork. Plaintiffs are also represented by Memphis attorney Lucian T. Pera of Adams and Reese LLP.
Lead counsel Eric M. Baum offered the following statement:
“Paint Memphis Inc., a non-profit company that works hard to bring beauty and culture to the streets of the City of Memphis at no cost to the taxpayers, made an agreement with the City to bring renowned artists to donate magnificent murals to the City’s public spaces in need of renewal. These artists traveled to Memphis at their own expense and they spent significant time and money to create their beautiful murals. The artists turned the streets of Memphis into an outdoor public art gallery, asking nothing in return but the chance to show their work and have it treated with respect. Paint Memphis trusted the City to nurture and protect these wonderful works of art, created for all residents of Memphis and the world to enjoy.
“Instead, the City did the exact opposite. It destroyed the artwork, which is protected under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, without giving the artists any notice or any chance to preserve and protect it. It now threatens to destroy the artwork which remains. The City made it clear that it does not want artists to come and paint. It caused harm to the artists’ reputations and made it much harder for Paint Memphis to do its important work for citizens of Memphis. The City’s unannounced and wanton destruction broke the heart of every artist whose work was destroyed and every admirer of their work.
“Now the artists have united and filed a lawsuit. They are asking the court to hold the City accountable for willfully and unlawfully wiping out all their artwork and to prevent the City from destroying the remaining art. They want to send a message to the City and to the entire country that works of art should be preserved and protected, not destroyed.”
For a copy of the complaint filed against the City of Memphis. Photographs of the artwork at issue are included in the Complaint, including photographs of artwork after they were painted over by the City.