Shortcut Navigation:


register  |



Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts - CMBA

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts of CMBA
What is the number one thing most artists fear? Losing a decade's worth of work? Not getting paid for your efforts? Getting audited? Getting evicted? Getting told your work is no good? Well, that would be an interesting survey, but in the meantime, we’d like to shine a spotlight on one of the best resources in town to help you with some of these fears: Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a pro bono service of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association.

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) offers support to those of us who scrape by in order to do what we love: create. VLA is a group of passionate and extremely talented attorneys who meet once a month to discuss new pro bono applications and plan educational programming for both artists and attorneys.

As you may know, attorneys and artists have a lot in common: many work independently, striving to own their own venture or become a partner, most are highly specialized in one particular area and are in the industry to improve the lives of the people they serve. Many of the lawyers in VLA are former creatives themselves or work in their spare time as musicians, performers, writers and visual artists. They understand the value of creating and the time and energy that goes into making a work of art. And it is that precise level of appreciation that brings them together to serve the artist and arts nonprofit community.

They know how hard business can be for artists and that as a group, artists tend to be an underserved segment of the city. They’ve also seen artists getting cheated, sometimes unaware, as others steal their work to make a profit. These artists don’t always have the resources to fight, and for those lawyers who identify as artists, they are touched to be able to assist creative endeavors.

Members of the VLA note that the Cleveland arts scene is unique. For a city our size, it’s important to sustain the amazing arts that are here, and each year their support makes an even bigger impact. In place since the 1970s, VLA has helped countless artists and arts organizations with their arts-related legal matters, either by accepting the cases pro bono among themselves or by referring artists to relevant outside resources (read more about the history of VLA on their website listed below). Along with world-class institutions that you wouldn’t find in other peer cities, there are lots of little pockets of amazing things going on in the arts. In one attorney’s words, “We are crushing Buffalo!” Regionally, Cleveland is a major draw, as another lawyer remembers driving in from Kent State University as a student to visit gallery openings and shows in town.

As far as legal expertise goes, the VLA is full-service. Attorneys in varying disciplines come to volunteer with the group, especially those with a focus in contracts, employment, business formation, and intellectual property. So we took the opportunity recently to ask some VLA attorneys a few quick questions that we hear a lot from creative professionals.

Q. As artists review and enter into contracts with galleries, venues or publishers, is there any advice about what they should look for?
A: It’s all contingency planning. Look for what is missing and think about what might happen or what could go wrong. Always have it in writing and if it isn’t there, talk about adding it in. In the state of Ohio, however, bargaining power is not determined by law. Contractors may have to take the standard form offered or walk away; it’s important not to be afraid to walk if the agreement isn’t right for you.

Q. Do you have anything to add about copyrights or IP?
A. There are certain rights that are entitled to you upon creation. Your main job is to create. Create first, and know that the resources are there through VLA to help with disputes.

Q. In the unfortunate but all-too-common event that a gallery or performance venue closes, what can you say to those who are looking to get back their work or receive payment for past performances or services?
A.This goes back to the question about contracts. Communicate the compensation and ownership rights in writing before giving them your work. If after that you have trouble receiving payment, that’s what VLA is for.

Q. What should artists know to avoid needing your services? What advice would you give an artist looking to engage VLA?
A. Number one is to get things in writing, document your work and all communications, and keep good records. The idea of needing a lawyer is a result of something that has happened outside of your preparation. Protect yourself so that when you do need a lawyer, they can help you and have the evidence to support your claim. Don’t be afraid to ask for help even if you’re not sure where the dispute may lie. And possibly the most important thing you can do is to educate yourself. Take advantage of VLA’s education events, and do research to stay up-to-date based on how your artistic career evolves.

For more information about Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, visit the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association’s website at For an application for legal assistance, email Jessica Paine at