Historic NYC Church Beats Artist’s 9/11 Sculpture Suit

MANHATTAN (CN) – Shading the churchyard of a 250-year-old Wall Street chapel for a century, an august sycamore fell with the World Trade Center a few blocks away on Sept. 11, 2001.

Then, an artist’s painstaking bronze sculpture of the tree stood in its place for roughly a decade. The litigation over the artwork, however, lasted in Manhattan federal court only for a few months.

Defeating a lawsuit on Wednesday, New York’s historic Trinity Church commissioned Steve Tobin for its 9/11 commemoration in 2004.

Tobin envisioned his “Trinity Root” as a full-size reproduction of the sycamore, standing at 15-feet wide, 20-feet deep and 13-feet high, in the churchyard of St. Paul Chapel’s, which is part of Trinity’s parish.

Weighing more than three tons, the sculpture contained actual DNA from the attack victims, and required Tobin to take out a home equity loan to pay more than $1 million to create it, according to the artist.

Unveiled in 2005, the sculpture stayed in the yard until the church announced plans to move it to a seminary in Connecticut about 10 years later.

Tobin, who called the work site-specific, refused to have it moved, but said the church furtively moved it during the evening of Dec. 11, 2015.

Claiming his work got destroyed in transit, Tobin filed a three-count complaint against Trinity Church in April.

U.S. District Lorna Schofield ruled Wednesday morning that moving site-specific artwork does not violate the Visual Artists Rights Act.

“This claim fails because simply relocating The Trinity Root does not by itself constitute distortion, mutilation or modification under VARA,” she wrote in a 13-page opinion. “Even assuming that The Trinity Root is site-specific art, and that changing its location results in its ‘modification,’ that modification ‘is the result of … the public presentation, including … placement, of the work’ and therefore is not actionable unless the modification is caused by gross negligence.”

The judge added, “The legislative history makes clear that ‘removal of a work from a specific location comes within [this] exclusion because the location is a matter of presentation.”

A Trinity spokeswoman said that she was pleased with the court’s decision to dismiss the case and conclude the matter.

Tobin’s attorney Gale Elston declined to comment on the ruling beyond stating that she is reviewing the court’s decision.

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