Law: Don't Mess With Art

Artist David Phillips believes his art is in danger of being trashed. Not by reviewers, but by investment giant Fidelity. The company commissioned Phillips to create a sculpture park next to a Massachusetts office building, but after he was done Fidelity wanted to move one of the sculptures and alter a pathway. When the sides couldn't agree, Phillips sued under the Visual Artists Rights Act, a federal law that helps protect artists from owners' destroying their art. Now Fidelity wants nothing of it, offering to return all to the artist. Nope, says Phillips, who argues that his granite spheres and fish-shaped benches were designed specifically for the park's spiraling pathways and coastal environment. Moving them from the space, he says, is the same as mutilating them. Legal experts say Phillips's no-tampering view may not be protected. University of Virginia law professor Thomas Nachbar says if the sculptor is successful, he could set a disturbing precedent and chill future art sales. "If you contract with someone to put a sculpture in your garden, that would effectively give control of your garden to the artist," he says. Better, perhaps, to build a birdbath yourself.