Monday, January 7, 2013


Serra’s ‘threat’ to Broad collection
Curator argues artists’ law can place “moral rights” above historical accuracy

By Laura Gilbert. News, Issue 242, January 2012
Published online: 10 January 2013

An independent curator has claimed that Richard Serra threatened to withdraw one of his works from the collection of Eli and Edythe Broad if he was not allowed to rework the drawing. Magdalena Dabrowski, speaking to an audience of lawyers and art appraisers in New Yorkrecently, argued that historical accuracy is being compromised as a result of the Visual Artists Rights Act (Vara), which gives artists “moral rights” to disclaim their works and prevent their alteration by third parties.

Dabrowski organised an exhibition of drawings by Serra at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011. The artist reworked some of his earlier pieces for the show, which closed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in January 2012. 

Some of the drawings that Serra reworked had been damaged or destroyed, and the artist recreated them specifically for the show. The Met hinted at this by labelling the works with two dates: that of the original and that of the reworked version. Serra says it is not important whether audiences know which version they are seeing. “There’s no aura of originality because it’s an anonymous surface. It’s a difference without a value. I try to keep surfaces as anonymous as possible,” he tells The Art Newspaper. He says he owned the drawings he recreated, and destroyed the works they replaced.

Broad brushstrokes

Serra also reworked The United States Government Destroys Art, a drawing owned by the collectors Eli and Edythe Broad. He gave it a new surface shortly before the exhibition opened and insisted on dating the work 1989, when it was first made. “Serra felt that 1989 was the inception and therefore the drawing was only a 1989 work. Moral rights gave him the right to that date as opposed to historical accuracy,” Dabrowski says.

“The drawing was abraded,” she adds. “Serra felt it was a conservation issue. I asked him, ‘Should we double-date it because of the new surface?’ He said no because the concept has not been reworked.” She says that Serra threatened to “remove the work from the exhibit and withdraw it from the [owners’] collection” if he was not allowed to restore the work in the way he wanted. Serra denies saying he would withdraw the work from the Broad collection. “If a work is damaged and the surface is anonymous and the client agrees, I restore it,” he says. Asked if he would have disclaimed the drawing if the Broads had not agreed, Serra would only say: “That’s hypothetical.” 

As to whether he has ever disowned a work, Serra says: “I never disclaimed. I don’t recall. That may have been the case. Let me put it this way: usually…if a work is destroyed or damaged and there is the possibility of recovering it, then if it can be saved, I try to save it… I think it’s my responsibility to make sure the work exists in the way I want it to exist.” A spokeswoman for the Broad Foundations said: "The Broads consider US Government Destroys Art one of the most important works on paper in their collection and Richard among the most important artists working today." 

“The art historian tracks down the facts and integrates them,” says one former employee of a major museum, but sometimes decisions are made between trustees, curators and artists, and “art historians will never hear about it”. The question remains: how far does an artist have the right to go to control his or her work?

This article includes a response from the Broad Foundations, which was not received in time for the print edition.

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