Fort Worth artist cuts another’s work, stirring debate on creator’s rights, free speech
A limited edition Billy Hassell lithograph of West Texas wildlife was cut up on Fall Gallery Night by another Fort Worth artist during a live performance titled “White men who paint landscapes are not artists.”
Sophia del Rio’s work was part of a larger exhibition called “Further Fringes” at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. The performance lasted about 10 minutes, but its shockwaves continue to reverberate throughout the Fort Worth arts community.
The performance was not directly targeted at Hassell, del Rio said, but his work was chosen because of its connection with Texas Parks and Wildlife. She used the roughly $2,500 print to make a pointed statement on how the entity acquires land, the high cost of living in North Texas and the landowners who profit from the system.
However, Hassell and a local gallery director say that the unauthorized use of a copyrighted work in the performance likely violates the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. Further, the Houston gallery that originally sold the lithograph to del Rio says that she has a second, unpaid-for piece in her possession.
Arts Fort Worth, the nonprofit that manages the community arts center and the galleries within, also drew criticism for its role in the conflict, including hanging the results of the performance, taking them down and later returning them to the gallery walls. The organization disputed claims of censorship and released a statement saying it is reexamining its contracts and procedures.
During the performance, an upright easel held a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey poster, as del Rio used scissors and precision studio knife to cut the colorful lithograph titled “Pronghorn, West Texas” on the floor. A recording of her voice echoed in the gallery space as she worked, explaining her thesis that landscape art is steeped in colonialism.
“In Texas, ranchers and landowners commission landscape artists today to paint the property they privately own. … The land was originally acquired through colonial seizure and westward expansion,” her script read, in part.
“Now, landowners have the option to sell their land to the State of Texas to become park land. These people call themselves conservationists and environmentalists, but all these landowners have done is use the land for their own purposes and then sell it to the state authorities for profit.”
After she had affixed pieces of Hassell’s print to the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey poster, she invited audience members to play by adding dollar bill-shaped tails.
“Blindfolding everyone, having them sort of spin around and be disoriented, and then move toward the board and try to do their best to win, I mean, that’s very much how I feel, trying to just pay my bills these days,” del Rio said. “The dollar bill tails were intentional in that it’s like, why even bother … You’re just basically throwing money at this game and you’re not going to win.”
The two resulting works from the performance were later hung in the gallery and video of the act was added to a monitor, which cycled through clips of other performances from the Sept. 9 show.
“I was so pleasantly surprised,” she said. “A lot of people were interested. They came in, they were walking through the galleries, and they stopped and engaged. I was shocked with how many people played the game. I was surprised with how many people remained in the gallery and spoke with me about the game and about the work.”
‘I was shocked’
Hassell was unaware of the performance until someone sent him a video they found on social media.
“My first reaction was I was shocked,” he said.
As a supporter of conservation efforts for nearly 30 years and a well-known artist within the Fort Worth arts community and beyond, Hassell has worked to help preserve public land in Texas, including using his artwork to raise money and awareness toward that effort.
“I’m currently on the board of the Big Bend Conservancy, which is a private group that helps raise money to supplement the federal money that’s just not adequate to run a national park,” he said. “I’m committed to this. It’s a very personal and strong commitment on my part to conservation groups that are doing good work.”But the negative impact of this situation extends beyond Hassell, he said, including Texas Parks and Wildlife, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
“Every one of these prints that sold through a gallery or out of my studio or anywhere, half of the proceeds go directly to Texas Parks and Wildlife for their fundraising efforts.”
As a fellow artist, he understands the desire to make a statement, but he takes issue with how this project was carried out.
“If Sophia del Rio had come to me and asked for my permission to use one of my prints? Yes that would have changed everything,” he considered. “However, I’m still not sure I would ever agree that it’s a good practice to destroy another artist’s work.”
He expressed concern that this event could set a dangerous precedent for other artists.“Where does the right of the person destroying the art, how does that become more important than the artist who created the work?” he said.
A replacement print
In August, del Rio inquired about purchasing one of the limited edition lithographs in what was a pretty straightforward transaction, Sarah Fotlz, of the Houston gallery Foltz Fine Art, said.
Both parties agree that the print was paid for, but their stories diverge from there.
The gallery got a note from del Rio stating that she did not receive the print numbered 17/30.
Foltz asked FedEx about the delivery and was sent a photo of the parcel in front of a door. When the image was provided to del Rio, who lives in a large apartment complex, she asked who the door belonged to.
While the gallery worked to get that sorted out, a second print, numbered 4/30, was hand-delivered by courier and signed for by del Rio.
After seeing photos that clearly show Hassell’s signature and 17/30 in the framed work from del Rio’s performance, the gallery sent a note requesting payment or the return of the replacement print.
Del Rio called the gallery’s handling of the print “incompetent” and said her neighbor delivered the first print weeks later.
“I have in no way deceived anyone or done any of these nefarious activities,” she said.
Arts Fort Worth
The secondary works resulting from del Rio’s performance were hung in the gallery at the community arts center and later taken down.
On social media, del Rio accused Arts Fort Worth of censorship and caving to pressure to remove the work in the face of a lawsuit.
In a statement, Arts Fort Worth said the organization takes these allegations seriously and wants to address them openly and honestly.
It also stated that neither Hassell nor any individuals or galleries he works with asked for the work to be removed or threatened the organization with a lawsuit.
Instead, the director of the arts center made the decision to remove the work, according to Arts Fort Worth. When the group’s executive director learned of that decision, he called a meeting and the nonprofit is actively reviewing its policies and procedures to make sure this is a singular occurrence.
“Arts Fort Worth believes in the rights of artists to express themselves and will advocate for that right,” the statement read. “The works on exhibit in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s galleries do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the organization, its staff, or board.”
The work did not violate the artistic freedom of expression policy, Arts Fort Worth said.
“We have not spoken to legal counsel about this specific incident, but as we continue to update and fortify our policies and procedures, Arts Fort Worth will certainly seek legal guidance to address VARA (Visual Artists Rights Act) and any other relevant laws and precedents.”
The Visual Artists Rights Act
Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment, but it’s not without its exceptions.
“Copyright, by definition, is a limitation on free speech,” said Oren Bracha, the William C. Conner Chair of law at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s pretty clear that the whole system believes that there is some sort of balance or coexistence of free speech and copyright.”
The law seeks to protect the rights of the people who create visual artwork and those who might use it, he continued.
“For the most part … this balancing between speech and the rights of authors and owners is done within copyright law,” Bracha said.
The majority of United States copyright law primarily protects a creator’s economic interests, Bracha said in a phone interview with the Report. But the Visual Artists Rights Act also protects artists’ so-called “moral rights,” which they retain even when a piece is no longer in their possession.
“The idea is that expressive works are an important manifestation of one’s identity and personality, and as such they are entitled to special protection of those personal interests,” Bracha said. “It basically says authors get to control the public meaning of their works against what they considered to be distortion or mutilation.”
These rights have some limits and important carve-outs, but one the most important protections is the integrity of a visual piece of art from both intentional and grossly negligent destruction.
“Moral rights issues are actually underexplored in American law,” he said. “You know, it’s really hard to say where a case on such a specific issue would come out.”
In this situation, Hassell describes del Rio’s performance as a destruction of his work.
For her part, del Rio argues her performance was not destructive but instead recontextualized the work and is protected by both free speech and fair use laws. Further, she believes that Hassell’s work is not protected by the visual rights law because it was a commission with the parks and wildlife foundation, and “work for hire” is a carve-out of the law that would nullify the act’s protections.
Without having more specifics on the contract for the commission and Hassell’s employment status with Texas Parks and Wildlife, it is hard to say whether this situation fits the law’s highly specific definition of work for hire, Bracha said.
Regardless, he cautioned against assuming that this work wouldn’t be protected by the act in a follow-up email with the Report.
“Unless there is reason to think that this is a clear-cut, obvious case of employment, I wouldn’t assume that the [work for hire] issue is determinative,” Bracha wrote.
‘A pretty unusual situation’
The “Further Fringes” exhibition ended Sept. 30 as scheduled, but several big questions, and some dissatisfaction, linger.
“I was really disappointed with how that was handled,” Hassell said of the initial decision to remove del Rio’s work from the gallery. “I think what should have been an opportunity for a conversation quickly became reactionary and turned into a series of events that escalated the situation rather than diffusing it.”
For her part, del Rio said that if, in the future, an artist used her work and recontextualized it, she would be honored.“Just because a person is called out doesn’t mean their work is not valuable. And that’s really important to consider here, right? His work is valuable and a lot of people pay a lot of money for it, and he is well received for a reason,” she said.
“However, I am trying to make a secondary statement, and I just so happened to use a piece of his work that is a promotional item for the parks department.”
Darryl Lauster is a performance artist and an art professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He did not see the performance or the work that resulted from it, but did say that this situation raises interesting questions.
As a proponent of the First Amendment, he believes artists should push boundaries and critique systems around them, but he tells his students that it’s important to do this as responsibly as possible.
“And, of course, to be sensitive not only to the public, as much as it will not run afoul of your content, but particularly of other artists,” he said. “In many ways, we are all kindred spirits out there trying to make a difference. So for an artist to kind of defile another artist’s work to me is, you know, that’s tough.”
Asking for permission in advance would change the situation, Lauster said.
One artist significantly modifying the work of another is not unprecedented in the art world, but it is important to bear in mind the ramifications of the visual rights act, he added. In one famous example, one artist erased the drawing of another, but it was done with permission.
In Fort Worth, however, this event appears to be unique.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before, and I don’t think the galleries had either,” Hassell said. “You know, it was a pretty unusual situation.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
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