Auction.com

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.

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A sign outside a storefront in Buffalo, New York.
    Environment

    Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?

    The Western New York city possesses a distinct mix of weather, geography, and infrastructure that could make it a potential climate haven. But for whom?

  2. Design

    How Advertising Conquered Urban Space

    In cities around the world, advertising is everywhere. We may try to shut it out, but it reflects who we are (or want to be) and connects us to the urban past.

  3. photo: a high-speed train in Switzerland
    Transportation

    The Case for Portland-to-Vancouver High-Speed Rail

    At the Cascadia Rail Summit outside Seattle, a fledgling scheme to bring high-speed rail from Portland to Vancouver found an enthusiastic reception.

  4. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  5. Tents with the Honolulu skyline behind them
    Life

    Where Is the Best City to Live, Based on Salaries and Cost of Living?

    Paychecks stretch the furthest in smaller cities for most workers, but techies continue to do best in larger, more expensive cities.

×