Service of Strings Attached

March 31st, 2016

Categories: Architects, Art, Interior Design, Real Estate, Strings Attached

Most of the things we buy we own and can do with what we wish. Art isn’t one of them, especially works by famous, living people. If they didn’t know it before, the developer planning to convert the Sony Building on Madison Avenue to a hotel and luxury apartments knows it now.

Sony commissioned Canadian artist Dorothea Rockburne to create two fresco murals for its lobby in the 1990s. The Chetrit Group, that bought the building from Sony in 2013 for $1.1 billion, has her to deal with according to Peter Grant in his Wall Street Journal story, “Artist Skeptical Over Murals’ Fate.” 

Grant wrote: “The fate of [the] murals has been uncertain since earlier this year when Ms. Rockburne set off a furor in the art world by saying they were being endangered by the conversion project. That led to a series of meetings in February and earlier this month between Ms. Rockburne and Joseph Chetrit; his son, Jonathan; and their architect, Robert A.M. Stern.”

Rockburne wants control over lighting and doesn’t want the murals moved. Grant wrote that her “artwork is grounded in astronomy and mathematics” and that the murals were “designed in part to reflect their exact locations in the cosmos.” As for the lighting, “getting it wrong would be like leaving out a color” she told Grant. “It can’t be seen unless it’s lit by me,’ she said.”

Architect Stern told Grant “that his firm is making sure that the lighting and other design elements complement the murals, which will ‘give this lobby a wonderful glow and make it something everyone will want to enjoy and experience.’ He added: ‘I am the architect and interior designer for the project and not Dorothea.’”

Rockburne, whose work is found at topflight museums such a MoMA and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, didn’t care for photos she saw of the model lobby—due to be completed in 2018—because high desks “obscured the view of the mural.” Rockburne posited, “Would you put desks in front of the ‘Last Supper?’”

Developers have crossed swords before over artworks in buildings they’ve bought. Grant reminded readers of Aby Rosen who caused a kerfuffle when he removed Picasso’s “Le Tricorne,” from the Four Seasons restaurant when he bought the Seagram Building 16 years ago. Grant reported that the Picasso stage curtain is currently on display at the New-York Historical Society.

I’m not a lawyer but a quick scan of Google made clear that artists—especially high profile ones still living—own copyrights to their works which limit what those who have commissioned their work can do. Goodness knows whether there was legal mumbo-jumbo between Sony and Rockburne which covered what happened to the works if they sold the building or what, if any, control current laws give this artist. Grant wrote that she has asked the Chetrits’ for a contract in which they agree to preserve the murals, which leads me to believe the fate of Northern and Southern Sky isn’t as buttoned up as she’d like.

Do you think Rockburne—or any artist–should be able to direct furniture and lighting placement in the lobby of a building they don’t own? Should a developer/new owner have any rights when it comes to work that comes with a building? Would you be slow to commission artwork from a top-selling artist for a building you own because of potential future complications?

Tags: , ,

8 Responses to “Service of Strings Attached”

  1. hb Said:

    I once dealt with a problem very much like the one you describe. As part of a “work out” job, I had dealings with a lobby sculpture so-called “artist” who had contracted with a condominium developer to provide a lobby “sculpture” to a building then under construction.

    He had agreed to “create” a big glued together pile of multi-colored glass tiles and chips, which from his drawings looked vaguely like a miniature waterfall. The developer had paid him $5,000 “up front,” and had agreed to pay him an additional $5,000, plus reasonable expenses, after the thing was installed.

    By the time I became involved several years later and was finishing construction of the building, the developer was bankrupt and long gone. However, it seemed to me that we were still owed a statue and the thing, while a little pointless at this address, didn’t seem to be particularly ugly. I called the man up.

    It turned out that he long since spent the $5,000 and hadn’t done a lick of work on the job. He insisted on being paid another $5,000 “up front,” as well as the $5,000 upon completion, plus yet another $5,000 for installation expenses, to “finish up.” This was far more than price the developer had contracted to pay.

    We went back and forth for a few weeks, eventually threatening each other with lawyers, but I got nowhere. Eventually, I realized I’d be much better off and would save a lot of money and aggravation if I just went over to Doyle’s a few blocks away and bought a good large fake antique piece of furniture and a couple of pretty pictures for the lobby. I did and they fit the lobby well. They are still there.

    New York buildings have very little to do with art and a great deal to do with money. If you pay enough, you can get any contract changed. Better still, make sure you have a damn good real estate lawyer before you agree to do anything.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What a story–though there are lots of people who play such games in all sorts of industries. I knew a PR firm with a partner whose drinking problem swallowed the out of pocket money clients paid so that the agency’s vendors and suppliers were never paid. It was tragic, really, for the legitimate members of the company who eventually made good every cent by moving in with parents and other extreme belt-tightening measures. As for the artist you referred to, he/she just made off with a chunk of money and had the nerve to ask for more! WOW. I sometimes wish I had that kind of moxie. I do not have fine thoughts about people like this.

    In your second life, you should be an interior designer perhaps? Your selections were terrific visually as well as for the stress levels of all concerned!

  3. Martha Takayama Said:

    It is clear that Sony commissioned Canadian artist Dorothea Rockburne to create two fresco murals for its lobby in the 1990s and paid her. The Chetrit Group is now the current owner. They have the right to remove, relocate, donate or destroy the murals. It may displease/distress Ms.Rockburne, but the murals are no longer hers!

    She might be able to contest reproduction of the murals for commercial purposes such as posters, although I do not believe there is iron-clad law that specifies that she must authorize such use. Ms.Rockburne is allowed to have any preferences with regard to the murals, but has no right to impose them on the owners of the work. Robert Stern neatly sums up his function as architect and interior designer for the project . The request for a contract from the new owners to satisfy Ms. Rockburne’s wishes seems to have no basis beyond her own caprice.

    Developers have fought over artworks in buildings they’ve bought. in a variety of ways. However, Aby Rosen’s behavior unfortunately appeared arrogant, gauche and tasteless from an academic, curatorial and social point of view. Fortunately others saved the artwork as a significant and beautiful artifact giving the public much greater access to it.

    Any artist who wants complete control over anything related to an artwork he sells, must make a contract at the time of sale .Imposition of conditions of this nature and including extensions to future owners should discourage most people from acquiring their work.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I was thinking that she’d been paid for her work by Sony so what was her gripe? This reminded me of a spokesperson a video company hired for a client project. The person was an author but was making good money to represent my client’s product on some TV news programs. I wanted something changed in the script and said so to the video producer. Her response was a haughty, “We can’t ask So and So to say THAT!” Believe me, the tweak was benign but also accurate.

    I told the producer that the great So and So was being paid by my client. If she didn’t want to accept such changes, we’d best select someone else. Nothing more was said and the script was changed.

    If an artist of any kind, including authors or actors, wants to control everything about a work or presentation, he/she should not sell it, their name or their time. The same goes for Presidential candidates who are given great sums to speak to corporate groups or at events sponsored by them. For the public to think that there are no strings attached, it’s dreaming!

  5. Hank Goldman Said:

    A very tough question.

    There were people like Frank Lloyd Wright who controlled everything in the houses he designed. Everything. Furniture, artwork, views out the window.

    And there was Clifford Still, who if he did not like your apartment, where he was hanging, he would buy the picture back! Or not let you buy it in the first place,

    Someone once gave me back a gift of my painting to them, because it didn’t match their sofa. A not uncommon story. Sadly. My overall answer would be it depends on the same and cachet of the given artist. Thanks for your wonderful questions Jeanne.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I “get” Frank Lloyd Wright although after a while the upholstery he selected would become tattered and would need to be changed. Also, I imagine that buyers of his homes that are not on national registries or are not museums pay plenty and want all the pieces he designed. I wonder if artists/architects can dictate from the grave. I think rules are in favor of those still living though I also think that Martha, in an earlier comment, made clear that they are not in the driver’s seat.

    Mr. Still’s arrogance is breathtaking. If he can afford to be this way–and no doubt, like Bernie Madoff who would turn away customers who would plead with him to take their money it’s a technique that works, so why not go for it? There seem to be many insecure wealthy people who accept this kind of treatment. Imagine paying to be insulted. Jeepers.

    I get the sofa person though I am sad for him/her. We knew a framer in Atlanta, Ga. who made a very good living by covering empty walls in new homes with art. After the interior decorator finished, he/she would turn the McMansion over to him. The designers couldn’t be bothered with this part of the job and the residents didn’t know the difference. He of course chose work that coordinated with the curtains and upholstery….but what a way to live. No thanks! I’d feel I was living in a mediocre hotel room.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    If anyone owns a copyright and/or other legal string to something he has for sale, the wise move is to either have such constraints removed or not to buy. Looks like a number of lawyers have become rich as a result of this costly nonsense.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    When freelance writers and photographers first began to seriously protect their work with copyrights, some went nuts about it. An editor of a decorating magazine told me about a photographer who had been paid for shooting a home for a story in her magazine that the publisher wanted his permission to reprint in a book. The photographer wanted so much extra for this that the publisher didn’t use the photography and the editor never again hired him. Further, she warned colleagues about him. Following the letter of the law talk some out of future work. Creative people need to protect their work but once someone has paid for it, perhaps they should think twice about being greedy. Instead, make the most out of the additional exposure. In the case of the book, the photographer could have contacted past, current and potential clients with the news which might have translated into far more assignments.

Leave a Reply