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Sean P. Means: Who owns art? The answer isn't always simple

Published June 6, 2014 4:36 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tom Van Sant was polite, but I could tell he wasn't happy.

We were talking about the sculpture Van Sant designed 50 years ago, "The Gulls of Salt Lake City," which was installed in the façade of the Prudential Federal Savings building in downtown Salt Lake City in 1964.

The city removed the sculpture a few months ago, before demolition work started on the building to make room for the city's new performing-arts center, which we learned this week will be called the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater.

When I talked to Van Sant, he was quite curious to know who in the city government had authorized the sculpture's removal — and why they hadn't called him first.

"They shouldn't be touched without the artist's permission," said Van Sant, who's now 83 and living in Santa Monica, Calif.

Van Sant was even more perplexed when I told him that his sculpture, as it stood before its recent removal, wasn't the same as it was when he created it. The 100 gulls he put up in 1964, stretching from the roof into a sunken garden below street level, had been cut to 65 when the building was renovated in 2001 — and the basement and first-floor portions of the sculpture were taken out.

City officials I interviewed (for a story that ran in the Tribune on May 25) said they had no idea what happened to the 35 gulls that made up the lower portion of the sculpture.

Side note: Two of the missing gulls have been found. They have been sitting on the sign for Pappy's Pawn on State Street, ever since owner Pappy Pappadakis bought them 27 years ago at a foreclosure auction for the bank.

"Two of these were sitting out on a shelf, so I bought 'em," Pappadakis said this week. He added that he's turned down a thousand offers to buy the seagulls.

The fate of "The Gulls of Salt Lake City" — an artwork that has been modified, forgotten, recovered and could one day see new life in the Eccles Theater — raises intriguing questions about the notion of who owns art.

In the world of visual art, when it's something that will fit in your living room, the answer is fairly simple: Whoever bought it owns it.

Does this mean I can buy, say, a Picasso, take it home and apply my own Magic Marker touches to it? Yes, though I'd be an idiot to jeopardize my investment — not to mention a philistine.

In fact, some artists have done similar things in service to their art. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has taken rare Han Dynasty vases and done things to them — painting a Coca-Cola logo, Andy Warhol-style, on one or having himself photographed dropping a vase to shatter on the ground. (In February, at a retrospective show of Ai's art in Miami, a local artist smashed one of Ai's vases as a protest. Naturally, he was arrested.)

But what happens when the art is public — something big enough or prominent enough that it's a familiar landmark to many people? Sometimes it gets trickier.

One of the reasons Van Sant wondered why nobody from Salt Lake City government had contacted him before moving "The Gulls" is that where he lives, in California, it's the law. The California Art Preservation Act of 1979 provides a way for artists to sue if the owners of artwork they created alter or damage that art.

Utah has a similar law, passed in 1992, but it extends only to public art created under the Percent-for-Art program. Also, the Utah law doesn't give artists the right to sue, the way the California law does.

In the movie world, arguments about the rights of copyright holders vs. the rights of consumers happen all the time. They came up when Ted Turner colorized black-and-white classics and when George Lucas messed with the original "Star Wars" trilogy. These arguments also fueled the battle over Cleanflix, the now-defunct Utah company that sold sanitized DVD versions of Hollywood films without the permission of Hollywood studios.

In the long run, it's the artist's name that endures. It's Michelangelo's "David," not the Florence Cathedral's "David." But while an artist is alive, it would be a smart move — and morally correct — for any art historian or restorer to pick the artist's brain for all the expertise that's there.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.