Mass MoCA Gets to Spank Christoph Buchel

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The big news over the weekend is that the federal court judge who heard the case of Christoph Buchel’s complaint against Mass MoCA has sided with the museum. As you’ll remember, Mass MOCA first commissioned a sprawling installation project by Buchel, then cancelled it when costs ran out of bounds. But the museum still wanted to display the unfinished work. Buchel went to a federal district court in Springfield, Mass., seeking an injuction against Mass MoCA, contending that to show his incomplete project against his will would be a violation of the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act.

On Friday the judge sided with MoCA, ruling that the Act does not cover unfinished works. John Dyer of the Boston Globe has details. One of Buchel’s lawyers, Donn Zaretsky, has comments on his own ever useful Art Law Blog.

I’ve been sympathetic with Mass MoCA over the budget problems it faced as Buchel’s requirements for his massive installation ballooned. But as I said in July, the museum’s decision to display his work in unifinished state, against his will, “has always struck me as not so much a reasonable curatorial judgment call as an institutional temper tantrum.”

Nothing about Judge Michael A. Ponsor’s decision has changed that for me. I find it strange that Ponsor could conclude that showing a half finished work wouldn’t harm the artists’s reputation. That might be true of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave or the fragmentary version of Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximilian that you can see at the National Gallery in London. But that’s because we all have in our minds a pretty full picture of Manet’s or Michelangelo’s entire output as artists. Buchel is Swiss, and the MoCA installation would have been his first major work in the U.S.

Hard as it might have been for MoCA to just suck it up and move on, that’s what they should have done. That, and made sure that when they commission works in the future, their contracts with the artists lay out cost parameters in nice, bright detail.