Imagine someone changing the words of an American classic like F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," or giving a new, happy ending to "Gone With the Wind," or redoing the White House in pink. It may sound like a nightmare, but it's one that many American artists endure because there is little protection for their work after it leaves their hands. The horror stories from artists: painted-over canvases, sculptures split in two, colors changed.
On Capitol Hill this week, arguments for and against the Visual Artists Rights Act were heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Kasten (R-Wis.), takes up this issue and others concerning artists' rights, including resale royalties, a particular sticking point.
That section of the bill pits dealers, collectors and auction houses -- who claim it will harm the bountiful art market -- against artists, who say they deserve some share of the high prices now being fetched for art. The bill would guarantee painters and sculptors royalty payments each time their works were resold.
Though Kennedy was the only legislator in attendance, except for a brief appearance by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), he jumped into the lively debate with enthusiasm. "It seems that the artists are behind this bill," he said, shaking a pile of letters at Michael Ainslie, president of Sotheby's auction house, as Ainslie was arguing that artists would be harmed by the bill because it would discourage the buying of art. "The dealers and galleries are speaking for the artists, but I think the artists should speak for themselves," said Kennedy.
The bill proposes a 7 percent royalty for artists from collectors' gains that are greater than 50 percent on work that is worth more than $1,000. Those who favor the bill say the art market can handle the increased costs and that artists deserve the money as the value of their work appreciates. "Artists feel like a horse when the silver cup has been given to the jockey," said Schuyler Chapin, chairman of the Independent Committee on Arts Policy. "There's been a clash of art and commerce since the dawn of time -- this will not kill the market."
Others disagree. "It would be Robin Hood in reverse," said John Merryman, Stanford University law professor and chairman of the American Bar Association's panel on visual arts. "A few wealthy artists would get more, and the great mass of unrecognized artists would get less," he said, contending that only some famous works appreciate substantially. The resale royalty would, he said, "discourage collectors, dealers and auctioneers from entering and supporting the contemporary art market."
Despite opposition, the bill has strong bipartisan support. And Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has introduced a similar bill in the House. An aide to Kennedy predicted the Senate bill would move to the full Judiciary Committee after Christmas. "We're enthusiastic about it and think it will pass this session," the aide said.
Openings: Pasternak and a Pop Star
At two shows that opened last week, the featured artists had only a little something in common. Both have painted famous people; both have specialized in portraits. But that's as far as it goes.
At the trendy Govinda Gallery in Georgetown, Rolling Stones rocker Ron Wood opened his show of portraits, titled "Decades." The crowd, mostly swathed in black, sipped white wine and squeezed into the small space that had one too many big pictures of Mick Jagger. The best comment of the night came from a tall blond woman with a flip hairdo: "These are good. They look like real people. Cool." Through Jan. 2.
At Meridian House International, the pearls-and-silk set welcomed the paintings and drawings of Leonid Pasternak in "A Russian Impressionist: Leonid Pasternak, 1890-1945." It is the first time this collection of gentle sketches, from the man who is famous largely for being the father of writer Boris Pasternak, has been seen in the United States. The talk was more rarefied, mostly on the summit and Russian literature. One couple discussed the virtues of "War and Peace" as they stood in front of a painting of Tolstoy and his family. Through Jan. 18.
Up This Week
On Friday night at 8, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery presents sitar player Vilayat Khan in a free concert of classical Indian music at the Ripley Center Lecture Hall ... Also on Friday, poet and writer Jim Carroll, whose "Basketball Diaries" made him a cult favorite of the '60s and '70s, reads at d.c. space from his recent "Forced Entries," which chronicles the trendy downtown New York City art scene. He will give readings at 9 p.m., 10:30 and midnight ... And at the Dupont Circle Fine Art Galleries' third annual Walk-Talk from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, directors and artists from 15 area galleries present short talks, with the galleries open for perusal.