Some artists, even those as revered as Rembrandt and van Gogh, toiled in virtual poverty for much of their lives.
Modern artists face a similar struggle to stay afloat monetarily, a fact of life complicated by a society steeped in legal entanglements.
Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, or WALA, helps local artists concentrate on their work, not paperwork.
Have a beef with a gallery owner over a misplaced print? Curious how to transform a loose-knit band of writers into a streamlined nonprofit organization? WALA thrives on such challenges.
The group dispenses legal expertise for free or for greatly reduced fees for local artisans and nonprofit groups, from musicians to playwrights.
Executive Director Elena M. Paul says WALA serves a practical purpose in a field where inspiration, not commerce, comes first.
“People forget that this is a business,” Ms. Paul says. “It’s not just art.”
Dedication to your craft is admirable, but so is paying the rent.
“You have to have the business structure, or you can’t analyze the business opportunities when they come up,” Ms. Paul says of her clients’ needs.
The group represents more than 1,200 low-income artists and nonprofit arts groups each year. WALA, which formed in 1983, attracts support from wizened legal minds aflutter with their love of art and from law students eager for the close contact with clients WALA provides. WALA also provides neophyte legal scholars with mentoring services and networking avenues.
WALA retains three full-time staffers along with about 350 volunteers culled from such firms as Patton Boggs, Hunton and Williams, and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. About half the volunteers dabble in the arts off the clock, Ms. Paul says.
The group, a partner with the District of Columbia’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities, offers a number of benefits for struggling artists beyond basic legal advice. Its Arts Resolution Services pairs artists with mediators to resolve creative disputes.
Plus, WALA conducts an annual Arts & Entertainment Law Symposium. This year’s event, to be held Nov. 10 at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Moot Courtroom, is “Pleading the First: Threats to Free Expression Posed by Arts Funding and Copyright Law.” A bonus panel, “Social Entrepreneurship and Venture Capitalism: The Future of Philanthropy?” will be held Nov. 9 at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives in Northwest.
WALA’s legal clinic gives anyone up to 45 minutes with a lawyer to discuss a case. Most situations are resolved “on the spot,” Ms. Paul says.
Others have involved more curious, and complicated, scenarios.
This summer, a group approached WALA about protecting a building on public ground from the wrecking ball, hoping the architects involved could have their work protected by law.
Another client, a nonprofit group, needed a legal hand when it received a tiny Greek island from a benefactor. The nonprofit wanted to start an artists’ colony on the island and sought out WALA to make sure it proceeded properly.
Local artist Dennis O’Neil, director of Hand Print Workshop International in Alexandria, Va., taught printmaking for the colony’s opening programs.
Mr. O’Neil runs a nonprofit workshop next to his Alexandria home. It already had its nonprofit status secured when he met Ms. Paul, but his print shop remained vulnerable to the kind of mistakes that could cut into its limited budget.
“We operated in some areas rather naively in the past, particularly with contracts,” he says. He routinely deals with loan agreements for the international artists whose work appears in his exhibitions, including a Dec. 6 show slated for the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
WALA also advised him on insurance matters while connecting him to a legal community eager to shop his wares.
About a third of the artists who seek out WALA’s help do so to establish or secure nonprofit status.
Clients such as Mr. O’Neil already may possess a reasonable knowledge of the legal system, but in a delicate arts economy, that isn’t always enough.
“They go up a certain level, and they can’t get over the next hump,” Ms. Paul says. “You have to have more formalized bureaucracy to take on a large project.”
Ms. Paul grew up in a home where the arts were more than encouraged. They were a part of life, she says, something she credits to her parents’ European heritage.
As an adult, she worked in the National Gallery of Art’s public relations office, where the museum’s general counsel’s office was a few steps away. She later volunteered with WALA, then began moving up its organizational ladder.
WALA President Eldon Greenberg used to support the arts solely as a patron, attending as many operas, symphonies and plays as his social calendar permitted.
Once he learned of WALA’s work through his circle of friends, he found he wanted to do more.
“It struck me as an organization that had a valuable array of services,” he says.
“There’s been a steady need for the work that WALA does,” he continues. “The arts community [in Washington] gets more and more exciting each year.
“It’s as good as any city in the country,” he adds, outside of entertainment meccas such as Chicago and New York City, with a “highly educated, sophisticated audience.”
The community could become even more intriguing, and more in need of WALA’s handiwork, given the glut of Internet companies proliferating in Northern Virginia.
“In the last five years … intellectual-property issues have become of premium importance to the legal community,” Mr. Greenberg says. “The Internet has led to an explosion of legal practices.”
The District is ideal for WALA for other reasons, according to Ms. Paul.
“There’s institutionalized pro bono in Washington… . There’s a culture that allows the attorney to get to work for free,” she says.
Watching Ms. Paul flip through some of Mr. O’Neil’s print collection hammers home why she dedicates herself to WALA.
“Once you see the work, it’s compelling. It’s what drives WALA,” she says.
What drives her clients is the need to protect such personal work.
“Art is not just a business. It’s about you, and you’re very vulnerable,” she says.