Easel rights? Lawyers help out struggling artists

Artist Stephen Stoller was mixing his paints and preparing to set up his easel on a downtown Atlanta sidewalk. Every day he had been there, painting a street scene, people had greeted him warmly - including some police officers.

But this day was different.

A policeman he had not seen before gave him a ticket for obstructing pedestrian traffic.

Mr. Stoller was convinced that an artist had a right to set up his easel on a public sidewalk. Anxious to strike a blow for artistic freedom - and to avoid a fine that would have been difficult to pay - he turned to a local group that offers free legal assistance to low-income artists, whether sculptors, musicians , authors, actors, or painters like Mr. Stoller.

In the past 10 years, the number of such groups has grown from a handful to about 40 across the United States, from New York to California. They involve several thousand attorneys who donate their time to help artists negotiate contracts, obtain copyrights, and go to court. An origami group (paper folders), a clown, authors of small-theater plays, and many others have used such help.

And as artists, who often have a distaste for the business side of their profession, increasingly realize their need for legal help, the number of requests for such assistance has been growing, says Tim Jensen of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in New York. Without such help, artists are often ''taken advantage of,'' he says.

Some of the services offering legal help, however, have closed or been reduced because state and federal funding for such activities is diminishing, says Mr. Jensen.

Income requirements for the free legal help differ from place to place. Georgia's Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) helps only persons with incomes of less than $7,500 a year.

Artist Stoller had no trouble qualifying. ''Steve supports six children on his paintings,'' bringing home only about $50 a week, his wife Rosemary said in a telephone interview from Indianapolis, where they recently moved. ''We could never have afforded any legal help.''

Atlanta attorney Penn Payne prepared a case to defend Stoller's right to use the sidewalks for his paintings. But she also discovered there was no ordinance against obstructing pedestrian traffic, as the ticketing officer had cited. The charge was dropped.

''It was a real victory; it was really thrilling,'' says Stoller's wife, who brought their children to the courtroom last fall to watch and learn.

Benjamin White, cofounder of the Georgia VLA, finds volunteering his time to help artists offers ''a bit of a change of pace from my tax practice.'' And he likes meeting artists like Atlanta playwright Eddie Lee.

Mr. Lee is ''a struggling artist, to say the least,'' says Mr. White, who helped him several times and is now assisting him in negotiating a contract for a possible New York presentation of Lee's play ''Outlaws.''

''I don't think we (his small theater company) could have survived without them (Georgia's VLA),'' Lee says.

The traditional Japanese art of paper folding - origami - has received a boost in New York City from the New York VLA. Michael Shall credits the VLA for helping obtain nonprofit tax status for his organization, The Friends of the Origami Center of America. Among other things, the center decorated a 25-foot Christmas tree in December with 10,000 pieces of oragami at the American Museum of Natural History.

New York illustrator Peter McCaffrey got VLA help over several months in obtaining $179 compensation from an agent who lost his portfolio of large slides of various works. (Months after the settlement, the portfolio was found in a storage room of the museum where the agent had left it unattended, Mr. McCaffrey says.)

Some cases are controversial; others are colorful. When an artist included a painting of a nude among those he was exhibiting in the lobby of a public convention center in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last fall, Mayor Erick Ficken closed the center. But a VLA attorney got a court order to reopen the center for additional exhibiting time.

And a clown seeking legal advice when he didn't have the money to finish payments on a sound system got a lot of attention when he walked into a prestigious Atlanta law firm - in full costume.

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