“Artists typically need legal assistance the most when they can afford it the least,” says Casey Summar, Executive Director of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville.
That’s why her organization, which seeks to bridge the gap and unite the unique resources of Nashville’s arts and business communities to create a sustainable creative culture there, founded the city’s Volunteer Lawyers and Professionals for the Arts (VLPA). A branch of the Arts & Business Council, Nashville’s VLPA is comprised of approximately 300 lawyers who offer their time and expertise, for free, to members of Nashville’s creative community who need legal assistance but can’t afford to pay for it.
While Nashville is known as the mecca of country music, its VLPA does not limit itself to offering legal assistance to musicians only. Freelance writers, artists and photographers, among others, are just as welcome to seek the organization’s help as are country musicians.
That being said, not just any artist can seek and obtain free legal advice through the Nashville VLPA. Artists must apply for help, which includes not only proving they can’t afford to pay for a lawyer out-of-pocket, but also that their legal dilemma stems from their artistic pursuit. In other words, even starving artists can’t receive divorce advice through the VLPA.
The Heart of Rock and Roll
There are approximately 30 VLPA groups across the United States. Not surprisingly, California enjoys the greatest concentration of such organizations, while there are also entities in Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver, Boston and New York City. Ohio is home to two groups, with the larger of the two being located in Cleveland, touted by Huey Lewis and the News as “the heart of rock and roll.”
George Carr, who is Of Counsel with the Cleveland office of Janik LLP, has been involved with that city’s Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts Committee (VLA) for eight years. Carr, the current chair of the committee which operates under the auspices of Cleveland Metro Bar Association, says he enjoys advising artists for a few reasons. One, he relishes the opportunity to “step outside his usual client base and deal with artists” as opposed to his usual commercial clients.
Carr also enjoys “the rare opportunity to look holistically at clients," he says. "It’s great to look at someone’s entire enterprise and help advise them how to improve their endeavors.”
Cleveland-area artists seek pro bono assistance through the VLA for various legal matters relating to their creative endeavors, including copyright, intellectual property, contracts and entity formation, to name a few. Landlord/tenant issues, including lease questions or the specific needs a dancer has for wood flooring in their rented space, for example, are other examples of matters handled by the Cleveland VLA.
According to Carr, the Cleveland VLA has received 32 formal applications for pro bono assistance over the past two years. But, the group, comprised of approximately 30 arts-minded attorneys, doesn’t limit its volunteer efforts to merely advising starving artists. It also offers educational opportunities for both artists and members of the legal communities.
That educational outreach is comprised of upwards of 25 programs and lectures annually on topics including how to complete grant applications, litigation defense and entity formation, Carr says. While those seminars are offered free of charge, some even qualify for continuing legal education credits for Ohio attorneys.
“The Cleveland program is unique because it pushes the topic of advising artists to the forefront,” Carr says.
Rocky Mountain High
Dave Ratner, founder and principal of The Creative Law Network, didn’t set out to be an attorney when he first became a professional. The Denver-based lawyer was, in fact, a member of the creative community himself as a music promoter when he realized artists were in desperate need of free legal advice and business acumen.
So, he went to law school and founded his Denver-based company in 2012. He also helped create the Colorado Attorneys for the Arts (CAFTA), a branch of the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. As the current chair of CAFTA, Ratner laments that artists are “not necessarily well compensated in our society. The image of the starving artist is real.”
However, he adds, “the artistic community is a vibrant contributor to our economy and society, so we need to give artists and arts organizations access to legal advice and counsel.” Volunteering for CAFTA is Ratner’s way of “helping support the arts to perpetuate their existence,” he says.
Just like Cleveland’s VLA, CAFTA and Nashville’s VLPA also offer educational opportunities for artists to learn about the business aspects of their work and for lawyers to gain insight about how to represent artists.
According to Ratner, who enjoys the unusual distinction of toiling in the artistic, legal and business worlds during his career, lawyers may not realize that representing artists differs than working with other kinds of clients. For that reason, CAFTA offers CLE to attorneys to educate them on how to represent the artistic community.
Certainly, it’s a generalization, but many artists are naïve to the brutal and competitive nature of the business landscape. Lawyers who seek to help them should be armed with that information. Organizations such as CAFTA seek to level out the playing field.
“Education is important to help artists protect themselves,” Ratner says. By arming members of the creative community with some basic legal and business acumen, CAFTA seeks to reduce the stress artists face as they toil in the unchartered waters of the business world, Ratner says.
While Carr is enthusiastic about providing free legal representation to members of the creative community, he also hopes those services won’t be needed one day. “It is my hope that our artist-clients will gain a level of success, both from a financial and business acumen standpoint, not to need us," he says. "But if they do, we were here to help.”