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Copyright Blog

Moral Rights and Abstract Sculpture

Artist seeks to preserve and restore her installation on community college campus

On March 16, 2021, Molly Mason (“Mason”) filed suit under the Visual Artist Rights Act (“VARA”) against Kirkwood Community College (“Kirkwood”), which is located in Cedar Rapids Iowa.

According to the complaint, Mason is an internationally recognized sculptor with achievements spanning a 45-year career. She has taught at several universities, has had her work included in numerous exhibitions, and has created works featured in private and public collections and installations around the world.
In the complaint and a Plaintiff’s Declaration, Mason asserts that Kirkwood’s Art Acquisition Committee (the “Committee”) contacted Mason in 2000 to begin discussing the possibility of Mason creating a work of art for Kirkwood. Discussion of the particulars of the proposed installation began in 2006, and it was decided that the work would be included in Kirkwood’s new education building and conference center, which was being constructed at the time. In accordance with the Committee’s strong desires, Mason incorporated a water feature into the design of the piece. The final design, titled “Before the Sun Speaks” (the "Work”) included two freestanding sculptures made of stainless steel and kiln-formed glass with a water feature incorporated throughout.

The Work was installed in late 2008 and early 2009 and was met with much acclaim, in the form of several news articles, numerous Instagram posts, a documentary inclusion, and a photograph in an internationally-distributed art book. Kirkwood’s own online publications also featured the Work. Mason’s complaint incorporates many exhibits cataloguing these reactions to the work.

According to Mason, in 2020, she became aware that changes had been made to the Work sometime around 2018. Namely, the water feature had been shut off, and large amounts of potting soil and many plants had been incorporated throughout the Work. Mason made attempts to communicate with Kirkwood representatives about the matter, but Mason alleges she was met with opposition and a lack of cooperation. Kirkwood cited defects in the sculpture and the water feature system as the reasons for the changes. According to the complaint, in late December 2020, Kirkwood threatened to remove the work at Mason’s expense if Mason did not remove it herself within 90 days.

Mason is seeking to vindicate her moral rights in the Work under VARA, codified in 17 U.S.C. § 106A, claiming that the Work, "clearly satisfies the definition of a 'work of visual art' under VARA. According to Mason, the changes to the Work constituted deliberate “distortion, mutilation, or other modification” in violation of her moral rights. Mason claims that any breakdown in the function of the water feature that may have led Kirkwood to conclude that it should be shut off was due to Kirkwood’s failure to maintain the system properly, not to an inherent defect in the system.

Along with her complaint, Mason filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and a Memo in support of that Motion. According to these documents, removal of the Work at this point will result in further damage in violation of VARA.

Mason is seeking an injunction to preserve the Work, the right to restore the Work to its original form, and actual or statutory damages. Kirkwood has not yet filed a reply in the suit, but we will provide updates as they become available.