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Why buying some conceptual art is like “owning nothingness” – The Ohio State University News



One day in 2016, law professor Guy Rub was visiting The Jewish Museum in New York City when he came across a work of conceptual art that made him pause.

But it wasn’t just the art itself that made an impression – it was the label that described the artwork.

The work, “Untitled” (USA Today), 1990, by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, consisted of candies individually wrapped in red, silver and blue cellophane, arranged on the floor. Gallery visitors were encouraged to take the candies, which were then replenished by museum staff.

What struck Rub was the notation on the label that said the artwork was from “The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of the Dannheisser Foundation, 1996.”

“As someone who studies copyright and intellectual property law, that language fascinated me,” said Rub, who is a professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University.

“In what sense was this art from MoMA? What did they own? The candies didn’t come from the Museum of Modern Art. The artist himself, who died in 1996, never touched the work that was displayed. It raised so many questions.”

The questions aren’t just academic.

In November 2015, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, announced that it acquired a similar artwork by Gonzalez-Torres called “Untitled” (L.A.), 1991. In this piece, “small, green candies wrapped in cellophane are spread across the gallery floor, so that viewers may touch, take, and consume the work, which can be endlessly replenished,” the museum announced on its website.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the museum paid $7.8 million for the piece. But what exactly did the museum get for that multimillion-dollar price?

Questions like that, and his own experience at The Jewish Museum, inspired Rub to interview 13 art industry insiders, including curators, collection managers, and senior administrators at museums and galleries, about the legal issues of ownership in the art world. He reviewed legal documents, such as contracts, published interviews with industry insiders and studied industry publications and websites. He published his findings last year in the BYU Law Review.

In the article, Rub concluded that conceptual art challenges core notions and hidden assumptions in the law in ways that other forms of art don’t. If you buy a painting by Van Gogh, you know exactly what you’re getting. You’re getting a physical object that can be transferred from one owner to another. Only one true version of that painting exists.

But conceptual art – like the works of Gonzalez-Torres – are different. In these works, the idea behind the work is more important than the actual art object itself.

The problem, though, is that ideas can’t be legally protected by copyright. Ideas can’t be owned (with few exceptions). But museums still buy and sell works of conceptual art for millions of dollars and use terms like “copyright” in ways that the law doesn’t recognize, Rub said.

The label at the Jewish Museum that first caught Guy Rub's attention.“Nobody can seriously claim that copyright law protects the notion of placing green candies on a gallery floor for viewers to take,” Rub said.

So what exactly did the Crystal Bridges Museum get when it bought “Untitled” (L.A.), 1991 for $7.8 million?

“From a legal perspective, absolutely nothing,” Rub said. “When the Crystal Bridges Museum bought this piece, they bought something that the law does not recognize. It is owning nothingness.”

No law prevents any museum or gallery from buying 175 pounds of individually wrapped candies in cellophane and presenting them as a work of art, he said. The work could be visually identical to the Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation that the Crystal Bridges Museum paid $7.8 million for. Rub asks: Why wouldn’t such a work be as authentic and identical in all respects to the work that the Crystal Bridges Museum “owns”?

The reason that no museums do this is because of the very powerful social norms of the industry, Rub said. The law may not back up their claims of ownership and copyright, but that hardly matters.

“The truly crucial aspect of this norm is that the people I interviewed stressed over and over that they would never present an installation of a work like that of Felix Gonzalez-Torres without receiving permission of the pseudo-owner,” Rub said.

“Untitled” (USA Today), 1990, on display at The Jewish Museum in New York. Photo: Guy Rub“When I asked people why they wouldn’t consider doing this, most of them could barely understand the question. In one way or another, they all told me it would be presenting a forgery, which I found fascinating. How can it be a forgery when there is no original?”

Social norms are one thing. But why do museums and galleries use legal terms like “copyright” when they are in these cases, as Rub says, “legal nothingness?”

Rub said he tried to explore with museum and industry officials whether they knew there was a gap between copyright law and their use of copyright terminology and copyright notices. He said their answers were often unsatisfactory and vague.

Officials said things like they “didn’t think about this before” or that using copyright terminology was “something that the [artist] wanted us to do.”

In the end, the use of legal terminology may be less about the law than it appears.

“This inaccurate use of legal terms might be a way for the industry to give even greater legitimacy to its norms,” he said. “It gives them legal cover, even if it doesn’t mean what it says.”

The disconnect between law and the social norms of the art industry doesn’t end when a piece of conceptual art is sold, Rub said.

Normally, when an object is sold, the connection between the seller and buyer is over, at least legally.

“But conceptual artists routinely exercise post-sale control over their sold works. The artists often can control how their work is shown and even who is involved in creating the presentation,” he said.

“Owners of the work are often incredibly deferential to the artists they purchased it from.”

Rub said that while the current system of ownership of conceptual art doesn’t provide the legal protections to owners that they may think it does, it doesn’t matter.

The system works because the art industry needs it. It is a community of insiders that want creativity to be rewarded. The norms of the art industry ensure that artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres can make a living, Rub said.

The norms are strong enough to protect all involved.

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world if some small gallery created an exhibition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work that is not authorized. They would, however, be shunned by the rest of the art community and find it hard to continue to operate,” Rub said.

“But we need to explore ways for how the law might develop to account for richer understandings of ownership including what it means to own some kinds of art.”

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Hat Art Club celebrates its 75-year anniversary – Medicine Hat News



By MO CRANKER on January 16, 2021.

Hat Art Club member Loretta Fix works on a piece in 2019 at the Cultural Centre. The group is celebrating 75 years in the community.–NEWS FILE PHOTO

The Hat Art Club has been a staple in the community for decades and is celebrating an important milestone this month – 75 years in existence.

The club sits around 100 members on a given year and was founded in 1946 by Mrs. Helen Beny Gibson and Rev. L.T.H Pearson. The group began with a program teaching people how to draw at city council chambers.

“The Hat Art Club has grown to be one of the foundational art clubs in the city,” said club president Bev Duke. “For a very long time, there were no other organizations that provided art training for adult artists in our community.

“There have been programs offered through the college over the years, but they were sporadic. The art club has offered a consistent place for artists of any age or skill to come and learn.”

The Hat Art Club has operated out of the Cultural Centre since it was built, and is now offering digital art programming. The club shifted to online classes last October and invested into its new website to help keep members in the loop.

Duke has been a member of the club for 25 years and is in her second term as president. She says the club aims to offer something for everyone.

“We have programs around all mediums,” she said. “One of our big programs is around drawing, because it is so foundational to art, a lot of people are interested.

“We offer acrylic, oils, pastels and art journaling.”

The art club’s shift to online has helped Hatters fill their time at home with fun, creative activities to focus on during the pandemic.

“Art is a creative outlet,” said Duke. “It gives you something to work on and it lets you develop different skills.”

The club has also announced a special promotion to get new members involved. For a limited time, get a membership for $75 to celebrate the anniversary.

More information can be found at

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How art reflects children's struggles during pandemic –



A collection of children’s drawings made during the pandemic illustrates the mental toll the pandemic is taking on Canadian youth, says the researcher behind a project analyzing their artwork.

Many of the submissions by kids and teenagers on depict people alone, haunted by shadowy spectres, or worse, their own thoughts.

Collectively, the images paint a stark picture of how the trials of young life under lockdown could shape the next generation, says Nikki Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at University of Guelph-Humber.

While the study is still underway, Martyn said initial observations suggest that coming of age during the COVID-19 crisis can create an emotional maelstrom during a critical period of adolescent development.

Being a teenager is tough enough at the best of times, she said, but finding your place in the world while stuck at home has left many young people feeling like they have no future to look forward to.

“The saddest part for me … is that kind of loss of not being able to see through to the other side,” she said.

“There’s so much pain and so much struggle right now that I think needs to be shared and seen, so that we can support our youth and make sure they become healthy adults.”

Since September, Martyn’s team has received more than 120 pieces from Canadians aged two to 18, submitted anonymously with parental permission, along with some background information and written responses.

Martyn marvelled at the breadth of creative talent the project has attracted, with submissions ranging from doodles, sketches, digital drawings, paintings, pastels, photos and even one musical composition.

Researchers circulated the call for young artists at schools and on social media. While the collection includes a few tot-scribbled masterpieces, Martyn said the majority of contributors are between the ages of 14 and 17.

As the submissions trickled in, she was struck by the potent and sometimes graphic depictions of adolescent anxiety, despair and isolation.

Recurring themes include confined figures, screaming faces, phantasmic presences, gory imagery and infringing darkness.

Some images contain allusions to self-harm, which Martyn sees as a physical representation of the pain afflicting so many of the study’s participants.

The researcher behind the project says the virtual gallery of illustrations by Canadian kids and teenagers showcases a wide variety of visions of the pandemic. (The Canadian Press/

Just as unsettling are the words that accompany the images. Some artists transcribed the relentless patter of pandemic-related concerns that pervade daily life, while others expressed sentiments like “I’m broken,” “this is too much” and “what’s the point?”

Martyn said many participants wrote of struggling to keep up in school, while some were dealing with family problems such as job loss, illness and even death.

Many of these feelings and challenges are common across age groups, Martyn noted. However, while adults are more accustomed to the ups and downs that life can bring, young people are less likely to have fostered the coping skills to help them weather a global crisis.

Art as a tool to communicate

A coalition of Canadian children’s hospitals has warned that the pandemic is fomenting a youth mental-health crisis with potentially “catastrophic” short- and long-term consequences for children’s wellbeing and growth.

This would be consistent with research from previous outbreaks suggesting that young people are more vulnerable to the negative psychological impacts of quarantine, including increased risk of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and behavioural problems, according to an August report by Children’s Mental Health Ontario.

An online survey of 1,300 Ontario children and young adults last spring found that nearly two-thirds of respondents felt that their mental health had deteriorated since COVID-19 hit, with many citing the abrupt end of school, disconnection from friends and uncertainty about the future as significant stressors.

Lydia Muyingo, a PhD student in clinical psychology at Dalhousie University, said when she looks through the images in the gallery, she can see how these concerns are confounding the typical turmoil of being a teenager.

Adolescence is a time for young people to figure out who they are through new experiences, interests and social interactions, said Muyingo.

This transition tends to bring about intense emotions, she said, and the pandemic has exacerbated this upheaval by replacing familiar anxieties about fitting in with fears about mortality.

Muyingo said she’s encouraged to see that the project is giving young people an outlet for these difficult feelings they may not even be able to put words to.

She encouraged adults to keep an eye out for children’s silent struggles, perhaps setting an example by sharing their own vulnerabilities.

“I think parents are sometimes scared of talking about dark themes, but the reality is that kids know a lot more than we think,” she said. “I think art like this can be used as a tool to communicate that it’s OK to feel this way.”

Martyn said the study has given her hope for what a future led by the quarantined generation could look like, because while pain pervades many of the illustrations, there are also symbols of resilience, connection and compassion.

“One of my visions from the very beginning of this was to have this as an art exhibit in a gallery, and to be able to go and be enveloped by it, have it around us and fully experience that lived idea of what children in Canada experienced.”

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) | 

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553).

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), (live chat counselling).

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Banned art project depicting Winnipeg as a queer paradise revived 23 years later –



Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey set out more than two decades ago to depict Winnipeg as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community — a Winnipeg that didn’t exist  — through a mock advertising campaign.

It never saw the light of day then. But now, after more than 23 years, their art work is finally being displayed where it was always intended.

Posters heralding Winnipeg as “One Gay City” have been plastered on three bus shelters in the downtown, as part of a new art project from the University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery.

“I think it’s pretty fantastic,” Millan said.

“It’s great to see work that, for a whole lot of reasons, has never been seen before in the setting it’s meant to be seen in.” 

Imagining city as ‘mecca for queerness’

It was 1997 when the two collaborators sought to riff on Winnipeg’s “One Great City” slogan by promoting the city as a “mecca for queerness,” as Millan put it. 

One print was to show a man pouting while dressed as the Golden Boy. “Where everyone is light in their loafers!” the headline proclaimed, above a revised take on the city’s slogan, “Winnipeg: One Gay City.”

In another, a smiling woman would be seen carrying fish she caught. “Where the fishing is great!” the caption declares. 

Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey’s mock advertisements were inspired, in part, by Winnipeg’s then-mayor refusing to recognize what was then called Gay Pride Day. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The duo was inspired by then-mayor Susan Thompson, who refused to acknowledge Gay Pride Day. 

People they knew had suffered violence from strangers, or verbal abuse, based on their presumed sexual orientation. Winnipeg was hardly a mecca for them.

“In many ways, Winnipeg is a dystopia for gay people,” Dempsey told the Winnipeg Free Press at the time. “Violence committed against gays has resulted in murder.”

The bus shelter ads, however, were never installed. Some Winnipeggers caught wind of the advertising campaign and an outcry ensued. 

The advertising agency objected to the queer content, backed by the Canadian Advertising Standards Council, and barred the posters from running.

The duo filed a human rights complaint. They reached a settlement with the ad agency in 1999.

By then, Winnipeg had elected Glen Murray, the first openly gay mayor of a large North American city.

It didn’t feel right to recreate their exhibition, Millan said.

Lorri Millan, left, and Shawna Dempsey have received international accolades for their performance art, which is largely presented through a feminist and lesbian lens — with a sense of humour. (Submitted by Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan )

“We felt that if we put [the posters] up, it somehow would be seen as a response to having a gay mayor rather than the larger cultural issues, which were still in play,” Millan said. 

The idea was cast aside, until the University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery approached the two artists — among Canada’s most renowned performance art duos — about staging an exhibition of some kind.

They settled on a show where Millan and Dempsey’s art would reclaim their home on bus shelters.

“We’re thrilled that this work is finally being seen,” Dempsey said.

“But more than that, we’re thrilled that the world has changed. And now Winnipeg is a much, much, much more inclusive place than it was 23 years ago for LGBTQ, two-spirited, asterisk folks.”

Two of the duo’s art pieces can be found at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Donald Street in Winnipeg. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Alongside their prints, the exhibition commissioned other bus shelter ads from a crop of Winnipeg queer artists: Jean Borbridge, Mahlet Cuff, Dayna Danger, Ally Gonzalo and Larry Glawson.

Dempsey said the intergenerational collaboration is gratifying. 

“We’re in this context of community with other artists who are out there, visible and queer and celebrating all of our diversities in public space — and it’s supported now,” she said.

“Lorri and I, we’re really glad we’re here, and we’re really glad we’re not alone.”

The One Queer City exhibition, curated by Blair Fornwald, will run on eight Winnipeg bus shelters until Feb. 14. A map of the locations is available here.

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