NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The sound sculpture underneath the Veterans Memorial Bridge has more legal standing than the so-called "pillar art," according to the city's legal counsel.
Attorney Joel Bard, writing for city solicitor KP Law, opined that a court would likely find that the sound sculpture is protected by federal law.
"The Harmonic Bridge installation may qualify as a 'sculpture,' as that term is defined under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), and as such, would be entitled to protection from modification," he wrote in a communication to the city on July 24.
"Should the City decide to reinstall the Pillar Art paintings, litigation might ensue over whether such modification violates VARA. If the matter were to be litigated and a court did determine that Harmonic Bridge is a sculpture, it is my opinion that repainting the Mill Children art in this setting would constitute a modification of that sculpture without the artists' permission, in violation of VARA."
An after-school art project seven and eight years ago had painted two sets of pillars supporting the bridge with character designs once made at the former Arnold Print Works and copies of photographs of mill children.
In 2017, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art had repainted the pillars a solid gray as part of a restoration of the longstanding sound installation below the bridge. The museum was about to open its massive Building 6 renovation and the installation refurbishment and cleanup of the areas under the bridge were part of the preparations.
The artists involved in the paintings and a couple citizens had been advocating since then for the paintings' restoration, saying Mass MoCA (which now occupies the former print works) had overstepped in destroying the works and failing to go through the Public Arts Commission. (The commission did not exist when either work was originally created.)
Neither group of artists had more than verbal affirmation with the city — as far as can be determined — to be placed under the bridge. "Harmonic Bridge," by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, was installed in 1998 as part of the opening of Mass MoCA and has apparently been intermittently maintained, including painting the pillars a particular gray color.
The artists had hoped the use of anti-graffiti top coat would allow the images to be restored. The commissioners had attempted to mediate some kind of resolution but in the end felt they had no authority to change the existing "Harmonic Bridge."
Proponents turned to the City Council for help and the issue ended up with the General Government Committee, which has been requesting an opinion from KP Law since January. Councilors concerns were whether the sculpture fell under VARA and, if so, would any modifications put the city in legal jeopardy.
There have been a number of high-profile cases related to VARA, including a $6.75 million award to street artists after a building they had been given permission to use as a canvas was torn down without their knowledge.
One of the questions Bard sought to answer was whether "Harmonic Bridge" constituted a visual work of sculpture. He based his opinion on several cases, including one involving Mass MoCA, the lawsuit over showing the Christoph Buchel exhibit a decade ago. The artist lost in that case
, but the court found that the multiple pieces of "Training Ground for Democracy" was an unfinished sculpture and could be protected by VARA.
"Based on the court's above finding that the sprawling assemblage of objects in Buchel was a 'sculpture' under VARA, it is my opinion that a court likely would find that the use of various objects and media in Harmonic Bridge to create a sound and visual experience in the physical under-bridge environment similarly is a sculpture, or sculptural installation, protected under VARA," he wrote.
The General Government Committee, meeting on Tuesday, swiftly voted to discontinue any further action on the matter so as not to open the to city to possible litigation.
Visual Artist Rights Act and MoCA by iBerkshires.com on Scribd