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Sunday, April 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Swiss Artist Wins Round in Feud With Museum

(CN) - The 1st Circuit overturned a ruling for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the museum's vitriolic feud with artist Christoph Büchel over a large, unfinished installation called "Training Ground for Democracy."

The federal appeals court in Boston ruled that U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor should have applied the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) to the Swiss artist's incomplete installation.

VARA is an amendment to the Copyright Act that protects artists from having their names associated with works that have been distorted, mutilated or otherwise modified without their consent.

"Moral rights protect the personality and creative energy that an artist contributes to his or her work," Judge Kermit Lipez wrote.

Büchel started work on the installation in 2006, as a visual commentary on how the U.S. military trains soldiers to adapt to foreign cultures. The Swiss artist is known for building elaborate, politically provocative environments, according to the ruling.

But tensions quickly developed between Büchel and the museum, particularly over budget concerns for the massive project, which took up a building the size of a football field in North Adams, Mass.

Büchel was unhappy with how museum employees were carrying out his detailed instructions, which he relayed remotely for the first few months of the project. His ideas included a movie theater, a house, a bar, various sea containers, a bomb carousel and an aircraft fuselage. One curator described the search for such items as "the ultimate scavenger hunt," according to the ruling.

When Büchel returned to Massachusetts to finish the installation, he told a museum curator that he would not let the museum open an "unfinished show in my name, since you are responsible for this delay." He called the museum disorganized, and accused it of underestimating the scope of his project.

He eventually pulled the plug on the project after the museum, struggling to meet costs, asked for more money from Büchel's galleries.

Museum staff continued to work on the installation without Büchel, but in May 2007 announced that the museum was canceling "Training Ground" and would be replacing it with "a documentary project exploring the issues raised in the course of complex collaborative projects between artists and institutions."

The museum sought a court declaration that it was entitled to show Büchel's unfinished work, a claim the artist vehemently fought. Büchel claimed that the altered installation, if shown publicly, would tarnish his reputation as an artist.

The appeals panel ruled that the lower court had incorrectly granted the museum summary judgment, and that a jury should decide whether the museum distorted the artist's vision by modifying the work without his consent.

"The right of integrity under VARA protects artists from distortions, mutilations or modifications of their works that are prejudicial to their reputation and honor," Judge Lipez wrote.

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