Temple scraps art, sculptor sues
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
"He just left it there," the temple's lawyer says. The artist says his work is protected by a 1991 law, and seeks more than $100,000.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Bradley Arthur's sister called him from her synagogue absolutely panicked.
His cherished work, a 600-pound metal sculpture called The Wave/Quantum Fluctuation, was gone, thrown away by Temple Beth-El like yesterday's garbage.
Arthur raced to the dump, but was three days too late. The sculpture had been chopped into pieces and sent off to be melted.
"It sickened me," the Land O'Lakes artist said. "It was devastating. What kind of disrespect does that show? It's a violation. They knew it wasn't theirs to throw away."
Arthur had brought the 10-foot sculpture to an art show at the synagogue in 1988, and says the temple asked him to leave it on display.
The temple insists it asked him to remove it, and he never did.
"It's been sitting there, rusting for 10 years," said Henry Stein, the temple's lawyer. "He abandoned it and the temple had to do something about it."
Now the synagogue and Arthur are battling in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court to decide who had control of the sculpture. The battle involves the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, a law passed in 1991 to protect artists' rights over their work.
Arthur, 49, is a respected artist whose work has appeared at the Grand Palais in Paris. It took him three weeks to create The Wave at a Tampa metal recycling yard in 1982. It was one of six pieces that to Arthur represent the creative process and a captured moment in time.
Arthur said the temple stood to make a commission of 33 percent should someone buy the sculpture while on display outside the synagogue. An appraiser valued the work at $65,000, though Arthur's lawyer said it is worth far more.
No buyer stepped forward, and The Wave remained outside the synagogue's main entrance for over a decade.
"I can't tell you the number of bar mitzvah pictures that have been taken in front of it," said Keith Poliakoff, Arthur's attorney.
Arthur said he visited the synagogue two or three times a year to make sure his sculpture was in good shape.
In 2001, the synagogue underwent a major renovation. Workers moved The Wave, and discovered rust and broken welds.
Synagogue leaders decided to toss it.
Arthur insists he never saw any rust or broken welds. He learned of its fate on Sept. 4, 2001, and demanded answers. Anticipating a lawsuit, the synagogue filed a declaratory lawsuit against Arthur that asked a judge to clarify legal issues. In May 2002, Arthur filed a counterclaim seeking unspecified damages that his lawyer said exceed $100,000.
Stein said the temple had every right to deal with a piece that had been abandoned. Arthur said no one bothered to ask him to remove it or warn it would be destroyed.
"I would have come to get it in a second," he said.
In his suit, Arthur said the destruction violated his copyright and also VARA, which forbids the alteration or destruction of a work of "recognized stature" without the artist's permission.
Under the law, which allows artists to seek damages, it doesn't matter if it's the owner who destroys the art.
"VARA isn't well known and it's shocking to people that there can be such restrictions on their own personal property," said Daniel Weiner, a New York lawyer familiar with the law.
Stein questions Arthur's claim under VARA because his work was at the synagogue before VARA was enacted in 1991. But Arthur's lawyer said it doesn't matter, so long as title to the work hadn't changed hands before that year.
"It's a sad situation," said Stein. "But he just left it there. Now he claims it's a valuable piece of art."
For Arthur, who once had a studio in New York, it's a matter of society respecting an artist's work. He has fought the battle before.
In 1984, he unsuccessfully sued ABC-TV for $24-million because he thought a network's logo copied one of his sculptures. The New York suit was dismissed by a judge.
"It's very hard for an artist to defend himself against any corporate structure," Arthur said. "My work is about my life and my legacy. You just hope it doesn't happen to other artists."
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