Q+A: Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law

Art law, which broadly covers the creation and dissemination of visual art, is a rapidly growing field–though few people seem to know about it. The Center for Art Law, based here in DUMBO, aggregates information about this corner of the field into one centralized resource, in order to benefit and inform artists, lawyers, students of both disciplines, dealers, museum administers and art collectors about the many ways that art and law interact. We sat down with Irina Tarsis, founder and director of the Center for Art Law, to discuss the mission of this non-profit.

How did The Center for Art Law begin?

Art law is a very large legal field, with many concerns and questions falling under that umbrella. Strangely, though, the lawyers I met who practiced art law kept saying that they got into the field by accident, they just fell into it. I wanted to help people who are trained in art history, or studio arts, and had an interest in helping artists, collectors, and museums, get into art law in an organized way.

What is the mission of The Center?

Our mission is to organize and provide resources for prospective law students or lawyers, to reach artists with questions such as what copyrights they have and to help artists and lawyers understand and trust each other. We publish an informative newsletter and keep track of different legal cases and different publications that come out on the subject of art law, to keep everything in one place.

What services does The Center provide? What specific kind of arts does it cover?

The Center is a centralized resource for art and cultural heritage law. We explore art law topics in easily understood articles. We organize resources on our website relating to universities with art law programs, law firms that practice art law, art law courses ,and organizations and bar associations of art law attorneys. We develop and host a fair number of events, mostly in New York but we have had events in Boston or Washington in the past, with the idea of bringing art and law community members together to discuss restitution, authenticity issues, or artist/ gallery relationships. There are a lot of ways that art law manifests itself in the legal field, and many ways that we try to make it more accessible.

Event on Estate Planning for Artists, hosted with the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, in June 2017
Event on Estate Planning for Artists, hosted with the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, in June 2017

What does art law encompass, besides restitution and authenticity?

It covers relationships between artists and galleries, as well as between collectors and dealers, and museums and artists. There's a fair amount of tax law involved, and a fair amount of trust and estate matters because estate planning for artists is unlike anything else. Estate planning for collectors has its own set of concerns. Other important issues are illicit trade in antiquities, and trade in ivory and other endangered species. We explore a wide array of issues, ranging from antiquity to contemporary art, from criminal to civil law, from intellectual property, to fraud and tax issues.

Are there any recent, high-profile cases of art law?

Some of the most high profile cases in the last ten years have involved the Knoedler Gallery in New York. Knoedler was the oldest gallery in the US, but it closed in 2011 because it was selling forgeries; about a dozen cases had been filed against the Gallery and related entities since the news broke. In the 19th and early 20th century, Knoedler was dealing in French art and later Old Master paintings; however, by the mid 1970s the gallery’s focus shifted to contemporary, Abstract Expressionist artwork. Unfortunately, the gallery wound up handling a large number of forgeries from one source. You can imagine there were many unhappy clients and discussion of due diligence in investigating provenance and authenticity of art. Yes, authenticity is a big subject right now. There are many cases also involving auction houses, where either they don't get paid by reluctant collectors or don't have all of the information available for their buyers. Knoedler was definitely the biggest authenticity case recently, though.

Another instance of high-profile art law occurred just this February, concerning the 5Pointz street art complex out on Long Island City, Queens. This was a series of industrial buildings where artists had studios, and many graffiti artists worked on the outside and inside of the buildings. When 5Pointz was threatened with demolition in 2013, some of the street artists tried to preserve their work, and this winter there was a decision from the Eastern District Court here in Brooklyn that determined that white washing these paintings was a violation of copyright law. Judge Frederic Block eventually decided that over $6 million were due to the artists who lost their artwork. Street art is probably the biggest and hottest art law subject right now.

Photos from a talk on Photography Law at the Danziger Gallery in November 2017
Photos from a talk on Photography Law at the Danziger Gallery in November 2017

Why is art law important?

Artistic creation is a positive manifestation of our culture; protection of art and artists, as well as making sure that people are able to create and preserve their creations, is important. While art lawyers generally do not have the same amount of creativity as studio artists, we are still able to help create, protect and preserve art and rights associated with making and owning it. There are many injustices committed against artists or art owners, selling stolen stolen cultural valuables or taking pieces on consignment and forgetting to pay the consignors. In short, art and artists deserve to be protected and have their rights preserved.

What is your favorite part of this job?

I love all of it! Working with artists and students is a great honor. I enjoy learning about new cases and research, and sharing what I find with others. When someone asks a new question or asks for help, it's uplifting to find a solution and help someone find their path or determine how to enforce their rights. Resolving conflicts, learning and sharing what I learn are my favorite parts of this job.

How did you become an art lawyer?

It happened in a very direct and purposeful way. I have an undergraduate degree in business, and a master’s degree in art history. Having done a lot of research about nationalization and sale of art following the Russian Revolution and having researched issues related to Nazi-era looted art and trophy collections, I decided that my interest in the ownership of art made more sense from a legal point of view than any other view, so I went to law school.

Panel at Cardozo Law School in February 2018
Panel at Cardozo Law School in February 2018

What kind of events does the center facilitate?

Since our formation, we have organized many different events from lectures and film screenings to museum and gallery tours. We work with law schools, other non profits, bar associations, auction houses, and even bookstores. The types of events we organize often have catchy names, like our series of film screenings called "You've Been Served" where we host a dinner and a movie, followed by a presentation from an expert on a given subject. We also have art law mixers where artists and lawyers come together to mingle over wine. The subjects raised at these mixers range from immigration law, to real estate issues concerning artists, to Nazi-looted art and new laws affecting the arts. There is no shortage of subject to explore and we are fortunate to have a large network of experts willing to come and share their knowledge.

Why did you set up your office here in Dumbo?

Convenience! Dumbo is located near the courthouses and within an easy reach of many law schools: Brooklyn Law, NYU Law School, and Cardozo Law School. Plus the office is easy to get to, affordable, and near other arts-related organizations and studios.

What's your favorite place in DUMBO?

Brooklyn Roasting! I found it just by smell. When we first moved here, every time I would leave my office I would smell strong coffee, and eventually my nose led me straight to their front door.

Mentioned in this article

Center for Art Law