Spotlight: The Rise of Two Midwest VLAs

*By Abby Placik

The first pro bono arts organization in the United States, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, was established in New York City in 1969 (“VLANY”). Other robust creative communities that needed legal assistance, such as Chicago, Cleveland and other Midwestern cities soon followed. For example, a young group of lawyers formed the “Creative City Committee” in Chicago in 1972. A few years later, in the mid-1970s, a circle of local lawyers founded the Cleveland VLA as a committee of the Cleveland Area Arts Council.

These Midwestern organizations modeled their legal referral program after VLANY’s process. An applicant would write a statement with a brief description of the artist’s work or the organization’s history, the applicant’s income, and the legal problem. The most common legal issues artists listed on their applicants for legal assistance included copyright, trademark and patents; contract drafting, review, and negotiation; and landlord-tenant disputes. Most of the applicants earn a household income a little over minimum wage. VLA clients may be charged for service were a processing fee for an application and any required legal forms depending upon the specific case. 

Originally the requirements for pro bono applicants were that they were either artists or not-for-profit organizations, they were financially unable to retain an attorney and they had an income under $6,000 or, if an organization a budget under $100,000. The contemporary application process at most VLAs remains almost identical to its original form (the required personal income and organizational budget have been adjusted over time). For over forty years, VLAs have been providing legal assistance to artists, non-profit and for-profit organizations, higher education institutions and even local governments. This article explores the founding of Lawyers for the Creative Arts in Chicago and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in Cleveland and the development of their programs and initiatives to the present.

Chicago Lawyers for the Creative Arts (“LCA”)

Working with the Chicago artistic community, the Creative City Committee noticed a need for pro bono legal services and created the organization now called Lawyers for the Creative Arts (“LCA”). The mission of LCA was and still is, “to provide legal assistance to artists and arts organizations financially unable to retain legal counsel.” Under its first president James N. Alexander and first executive-director Thomas R. Leavens, LCA had a $38,000 budget and had fifty-three volunteer attorneys who processed 100 applications. Reflective of their commitment, Alexander and Leavens continue to help artists in Illinois through their current positions on the Honors Council of LCA.

In its early years, LCA was supported by grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Borg-Warner Foundation, the Grant D. Pick Foundation, and individuals. Originally, LCA provided legal services to artists and arts organizations in the Chicagoland area, and clients received general explanatory material, model forms, and non-technical advice. Those interested in receiving legal assistance would fill out an application, an LCA member would review it and provide counsel at the office or over the phone. In the mid-1970s, a statistic stated that “LCA referred a total of 940 cases and [had] 87 volunteer attorneys.”

Today, LCA is an independent, non-profit §501(c)(3) corporation. Supporters of its programs have grown to include law firms, corporations, numerous foundations, governmental entities, and many individuals. As the only pro bono legal service dedicated to the arts in the state, LCA now serves clients in the art, culture, media and entertainment fields throughout Illinois. LCA has assisted individuals, for-profit and not-for-profit groups. LCA now offers legal advice pertaining to a wide array of subjects, including corporate law, commercial law, and general business advice; as well as copyright, trademark and patents, including rights clearances, licensing and fair use.

Artists, non-profit and for-profit organizations can apply on the LCA website for legal assistance at https://law-arts.org/application. According to Jan Feldman, Executive Director at LCA, the organization’s aim is to be financially inclusive in its application process. There is no minimum financial requirement–only a maximum of $35,000 household income. Feldman noted one of the challenges of meeting the needs of potential clients is the existence of a “donut hole,” meaning some applicants have above the maximum household income but cannot afford the high expenses that occur with retaining counsel in a specialized field (e.g. art and entertainment law). Despite the maximum income bar, LCA has assisted applicants over the bar who have compounded expenses (e.g. business and medical).

Today, LCA enlists more than 1800 attorneys to provide pro bono assistance to creative professionals and organizations throughout Illinois. Over the past year, LCA has held free educational events such as Legal Issues for Authors: Pen to Press Issues for the DIY Writer, Seminar: Funding for the Arts and Entertainment Law 101: Intellectual Property for Filmmakers and the Nonprofit and Tax Exemption Workshop. To support its programming, the LCA hosts an Annual Benefit Luncheon.

Cleveland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (“VLA”)

In the 1970s in Cleveland, Nina Gibans, a renowned advocate for local art and artists, was the Executive Director of the Cleveland Area Arts Council (“CAAC”). She partnered with William R. Joseph, a prominent attorney and backer of nonprofits, to form the Cleveland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (“VLA”).  The original mission of the CAAC and VLA, “was to disseminate information to local artists to give them the best opportunity to succeed.” A legacy of the program under the CAAC is “City Canvasses,” a series of ten murals that were painted on blank building walls throughout the city, and some can still be seen today. Artists involved in the project included Ray Domingo, Mort Epstein, Joe Hruby, John Morrell, Edwin Mieczkowski, Julian Stanczak, Jody Trivision, Susan Todys, Phyllis Sloane and Elijah Shaw. Mort Epstein’s electric outlet (1974) on the side of the Union building on Euclid Ave. pictured six black and white electrical outlets representing Cleveland State University’s commitment to diversity. John Morrell’s “Life Is Sharing the Same Park Bench” (1969) on the east side of the Superior Building on Rockwell Ave. facing E. Ninth St. depicts four figures of different races and sexes sitting next to each other on a park bench. This image is also the logo of the Association for the Advancement of Social Work With Groups. The murals are a testament to Cleveland artists and CAAC’s contributions to and engagement in community activism.  

In an interview, Gibans remarked that artists were in desperate need of counsel in basic business skills at the time of the VLA’s founding. Gibans went on to work extensively with many notable local institutions and authored The Community Arts Council Movement: History, Opinions and Issues, a significant work about arts administration.  In the past, VLA was known for its Saturday breakfast presentations on topics such as leasing, gallery agreements, sales and intellectual property protection. The CAAC disbanded and VLA became a committee under the Cleveland Bar Association (now Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association “CMBA”). In the late seventies, “the Cleveland VLA [numbered] approximately twelve attorneys and accountants who [met] several times a year and [were] on call to provide legal counseling and accounting services.” In its early years, VLA provided accounting as well as legal services and hosted workshops for lawyers and artists.

Today, the Cleveland VLA is also a non-profit §501(c)(3) corporation, a pro bono program under the CMBA. It is mainly supported by the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Foundation. The contemporary mission of VLA elaborates its original mission under the CAAC to “facilitate access to legal services for Northeast Ohio artists and arts organizations, including pro bono legal representation and referrals to income-eligible artists and arts organizations in all disciplines; [d]evelop educational resources for and build a living network of the region’s lawyers, artists, and arts organizations; and [a]dvocate for a strong and vibrant arts community.” VLA serves clients mainly in northeast Ohio who are artists or non-profit art organizations. Artists and art organizations can apply on the CMBA website for legal assistance. The CMBA has expanded to its clients free public law-related education programs and social events with attorneys who are interested in the arts.

Concluding Remarks

From its early years, VLANY was a recipient of a Challenge Grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. The Challenge Grant program required organizations to raise three dollars from private sources for every federal dollar with a goal “to promote long term stability and independence for the nation’s cultural institutions.” This grant allowed VLANY to meet its increased operating costs and develop research tools in art law. In turn, VLANY was able to increase its programming and, over time, the idea of pro bono legal assistance for the arts spread across the country. Most importantly, the Challenge Grant permitted VLANY to help artists and art organizations achieve stability and independence through legal aid.

Thanks to the creation of the VLA network, artists and art organizations have had access to affordable legal assistance for over forty years now. Chicago’s LCA and the Cleveland VLA carry out the work of VLANY in their missions to provide counsel on relevant issues, referrals to local attorneys, educational workshops and resources and a network of aid in their respective regions. It goes to say that VLAs are a valuable asset to major American arts communities and every donation is valued, not the least of which is the federal funding.

Selected Sources:

  1. Legal Referrals Show Increase, 2 ART & L. 1, 1,7 (1976).
  2. History, LAWYERS FOR THE CREATIVE ARTS, https://law-arts.org/history (last visited May 19, 2017).
  3. Chicago’s L.C.A., 2 ART & L. 1, 6 (1976).
  4. Supporters, LAWYERS FOR THE CREATIVE ARTS,  https://law-arts.org/supporters (last visited May 19, 2017).  
  5. History, LAWYERS FOR THE CREATIVE ARTS, https://law-arts.org/history (last visited May 19, 2017).
  6. Author’s phone interview with Mrs. Gibans (May 18, 2017).
  7. AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS. CLEVELAND CHAPTER.  ET AL., CITY CANVASES: CLEVELAND (Cleveland, Cleveland Area Arts Council 197-?).
  8.  95-year-old Cleveland artist updates historic diversity mural for tedxcle, FRESHWATER, http://www.freshwatercleveland.com/forgood/mortepstein041212.aspx (last visited May 24, 2017).
  9. Grant Segall, John F. Morrell painted “Park Bench” mural, CLEVELAND.COM, http://www.cleveland.com/obituaries/index.ssf/2010/04/john_f_morrell_painted_park_be.html (last visited May 24, 2017).
  10. From a correspondence on May 17, 2017 with Jessica Paine, Assistant Dir., Cmty. Programs & Info., Cleveland Metro. Bar Found.
  11. About VLA., 3 ART & L. 6, 7 (1977).
  12. Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, CLEVELAND METROPOLITAN BAR ASSOCIATION, http://www.clemetrobar.org. (last visited May 19, 2017).
  13. About VLA, 3 ART & L. 6, 6 (1977).

*About the Author: Abby Placik is a J.D. candidate at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Prior to law school, she worked as an administrative assistant at Lawyers for the Creative Arts in Chicago, Illinois. She received her B.A. in History of Art from Bryn Mawr College in 2015. She can be reached at abby.placik@case.edu.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Any views or opinions made in the linked article are the authors alone. Readers are not meant to act or rely upon the information in this article and should consult a licensed attorney.

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