an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

MASS MoCA Gets Thumbs-Up from Art-Loving Judge

Judge Michael Ponsor of U.S. District Court in Springfield, MA, apparently agreed with my layman’s surmise that the Visual Artists Rights Act does not apply to the Christoph Büchel mess at MASS MoCA. What’s more, the North Adams, MA, institution is free to display the material assembled for the abandoned project.
As reported by John Dyer in the Boston Globe, Judge Ponsor ruled on Friday that “an unfinished work [such as Büchel’s] didn’t qualify for protection under the [VARA] law. The judge said MASS MoCA must post a disclaimer explaining that the installation isn’t complete. The judge gave Büchel until Monday at 5 p.m. to provide any remarks to include in the disclaimer. The work cannot be shown until then, according to the ruling.” The judge also denied the request of the artist’s attorneys for an injunction to stop MASS MoCA from displaying the aborted project to the public.
To read the post mortem from one of the artist’s lawyers, Donn Zaretsky, in his Art Law Blog, go here.
It appears that MASS MoCA will soon move on from this sorry episode: In announcing the judge’s ruling on his institution’s website, director Joe Thompson provided details about the next mega-project for Building 5, the site of the Büchel debacle:
I’m pleased to announce a new installation for Building 5 by Jenny Holzer to be opened later this fall….Holzer will use MASS MOCA’s massive Building 5 as the site of her first interior light projections in the United States. She will also exhibit a new series of paintings shown, in part, at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
It remains to be seen whether Büchel will also put this episode behind him, or continue to sue for damage to his reputation by appealing the ruling. But Judge Ponser apparently disagreed with Büchel’s contention that exhibiting the aborted project could hurt his reputation. Paradoxically, that might be because, doing his due diligence prior to the court hearing, the judge journeyed to North Adams to view the evidence, was “extremely moved” and found it all “very powerful.”
The judge’s ecstatic art review is quoted on Martin Bromirski‘s Anaba blog, which is the next best thing to having been in the courtroom. You can read Martin’s two-part firsthand reportage here and here.
Your Honor, there’s an open art critic’s spot at the Boston Globe that I think might interest you!
Here’s what I think should happen next: MASS MoCA should exhibit the evidence of Debacle Büchel for one week, merely to give the morbidly curious (and those intrigued by Judge Ponser’s rave review) a chance to witness the subject of what will go down in history, along with Serrano and Ofili, as another Infamous Art Controversy that greatly increased public awareness of an artist’s work. The label must, of course, conform to the language dictated by Judge Ponser. It should not characterize the material as the work of Büchel, who repudiates it and has the right to do so, under VARA.
Then MASS MoCA should get that stuff outta there. Ask the artist’s attorneys what he wants done with it and try to comply with those wishes, to the extent that it seems reasonable. I’d like to see MASS MoCA recover the cost of materials, but the public-relations loss might outweigh the institution’s considerable financial loss in taking on this project.
Apropos the disposition of the material, here’s what director Joe Thompson wrote to me at the conclusion of a long, letter that he sent to me by e-mail on Friday, just three hours before the court session was to begin:
Should the court decide that the museum may continue to use its curatorial discretion in dealing with the materials that we purchased, and which have been sitting in our midst for 10 months, we will take into account the interests of our local community, our supporters, the many people who donated materials and sweat equity to this effort, art critics and historians, legal scholars, the comments of the court, the opinions of our friends and colleagues, the logistics of our own exhibition calendar, the ebb and flow of visitors and residents in the Berkshires, and many other factors both practical and philosophical. We will also take into account our longstanding mission of revealing in a truthful and transparent way the full reality of art-making today….
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all arising from this case…would be if MASS MoCA (and other institutions like it) had to radically alter the direct, experimental, organic way we work with artists. That is a chilling possibility for both artists and the institutions who strive to make their wildest ideas possible.

an ArtsJournal blog