An Artist Sues to Save Her Landmark Detroit Mural

The owner of a Detroit building graced by a famous mural wants to develop it. So the artist is suing to to preserve her work under copyright law.

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It’s one of those staples of guidebooks and cultural listicles in Detroit, one of the places you’re supposed to see while you’re there. Since 2009, The Illuminated Mural has elevated 2937 East Grand Boulevard beyond its station as a parcel with potential in the city’s North End neighborhood. The Detroit Free Press calls it “maybe Detroit’s most drop-dead gorgeous mural.”

For Katherine Craig, the mural is more than a marker of North End’s rising status. The so-called “bleeding rainbow” mural is a cornerstone of her career. And now, since the building’s owner aims to sell or redevelop the property, the artist is taking legal action to protect her work.

Craig filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit against Princeton Enterprises, the owner of the building at 2937 East Grand Boulevard. The federal suit seeks an injunction that would bar the developer from destroying or otherwise altering The Illuminated Mural—something that the developer intends to do in order to convert the building into lofts or apartments.

Converting the 9-story building into a condo tower would ruin The Illuminated Mural, a 100-by-125-foot painting that covers virtually an entire side of the building. The artist, who studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, received a Community + Public Arts: Detroit grant from the College for Creative Studies to execute the mural. (Her piece is in fact the banner for the program’s homepage.) Craig poured and splattered more than 100 gallons of paint on the Albert Kahn–designed building to create her work.

Seeing how often The Illuminated Mural winds up mentioned in the same breath as Detroit works by Charles McGee or Shepard Fairey, it stands to reason that she’d want to ensure its future. “Craig’s mural challenged the limits of experimental and traditional approaches to street art,” write Julie Pincus and Nichole Christian in Canvas Detroit.

Katherine Craig, The Illuminated Mural, 2009. (BB and HH/Flickr)

The artist’s case cites her rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, an expansion of the federal Copyright Act that protects works by visual artists. Rarely has the law been cited in a case with such a prominent artwork on the line.

The Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) protects artworks of “recognized stature”— including murals—from destruction, whether “intentional or grossly negligent.” If the federal court grants an injunction in Craig’s case, it would prohibit the building’s owner from knocking down the building or punching holes through the mural for windows. The injunction would further require Princeton Enterprises to notify potential buyers upfront about the mural’s protected status.

When Congress passed VARA, it sought to extend the moral rights of copyright owners to visual artists. As opposed to economic rights, which guide how a creator sells or profits on intellectual property, moral rights refer to a subset of non-economic rights. Roughly speaking, “attribution” refers to the copyright owner’s right to be identified as a work’s creator, while “integrity” protects a copyrighted work from changes that might undermine the work or the artist’s vision for it. (In the case of The Illuminated Mural, the threat to the work’s integrity could take the form of punched-out windows or a wrecking ball.)   

Now, Congress recognized that commercial property owners might not want to be tied to the fate of public artworks forever. Artists would rarely if ever win public-art commissions if that were the case. That’s why VARA includes a waiver of moral rights clause that enables parties to come to terms about what happens to a copyrighted work over the long term. (Licensing contracts often include waivers of moral rights, but VARA specifically protects the rights of visual artists.)

But the waiver of moral rights has to come up front. Craig’s suit states that she never expressly agreed to waiving her lifetime rights of attribution or integrity.

Perhaps only once before has an artist appealed for rights under VARA over such a significant artwork. Kent Twitchell, another muralist, sued the federal government after it painted over his famous 1987 mural, Ed Ruscha Monument, on the side of a building in Los Angeles in 2006. The artist won a $1.1 million settlement in the case. (Twitchell is now resurrecting his famous 70-foot-tall portrait of Ruscha, an artist and one of L.A.’s favorite sons, along the side of a downtown hotel.)

In some respects, Craig’s work might be the more important of these two. The Illuminated Mural is an abstract street-art mural, one that draws its references from art history. Craig poured the paint for The Illuminated Mural, for example, the way Morris Louis once poured paints down his canvases. She used weird or unconventional applications—including fire extinguishers—to get the paint on the wall, much as Jules Olitski once experimented with airbrush and aerosol.

From the perspective of a painting lover (or a Detroiter), The Illuminated Mural is a rich and irreplaceable work of art. Whether Craig’s most important work will survive as a mural is a question for the courts to decide.

Download the complaint here.

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