Creative Arts

Alternative Art Spaces Present Alternative Legal Issues

Written by Katelyn Crawford

For those interested in contemporary art and culture, it probably comes as no surprise that alternative art spaces are quickly becoming the newest fad in the art community.  Nationwide, artists are opting to show their work in alternative spaces—houses set up as galleries, or gallery spaces that are operated more like housing co-ops—than the traditional art spaces, such as the Art Institute of Chicago or David Zwirner in New York City.  From the artist’s point of view, this cultural shift makes sense, because traditional galleries are often selective and take a large portion of the sales.  However, from a lawyer’s point of view, the cultural transition leaves waters a little murky—contracts are often unenforceable or not made at all, and zoning laws are almost always ignored.

For attorneys, the most concerning area of law when working with alternative art spaces is zoning violations.  Often the space is hosted in a residential-zoned building, such as a house or apartment, but the space itself is technically commercial because the sale of goods or a business is being operated.  It’s much like running a hair salon out of your basement—you need the proper permits and to be in a properly zoned area for commercial real estate.  If the alternative art space violates a zoning law, it could face civil penalties.

However, spaces like Forever and Always, an alternative art space in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, show vibrant and inspiring art work, right out of their living and family rooms without the expectations of sales or profit.  The space is molded to promote cultural dialogue rather than commercial success.

Sara Condo, a resident and featured artist at Forever and Always, explains that they don’t really worry about zoning violations.  “We don’t see it as a commercial space.  It’s more of a place where artists and the community are invited inside our private home and transform the space into a public space.”  Condo went on to explain the space hasn’t sold much work, especially since Forever & Always is more interested in exhibiting art works that are traditionally marketable in a commercial setting such as performances, screenings, and lectures.  She goes on to say, “most people don’t expect to sell pieces.”  There aren’t many commercial transactions occurring, and there isn’t much need for a business permit.

This is where local zoning laws become sticky.  For some areas, this type of space may not be considered commercial at all, because it is not a registered business or nonprofit.  However, some zoning boards are much more strict and detailed—they consider any organized operation to be commercial, and therefore must operate in the appropriately zoned area.  According to its website, Chicago’s Zoning Unit simply prohibits “non-permitted business activities,” with civil penalties in the Circuit Court.  A good lawyer could argue that without any contracts, customers, or business-like activities, Forever and Always is not violating zoning ordinances, but rather just throwing very stylish parties.

The second legal issue concerning alternative spaces is contracts, or lack thereof.  In art law, the contract between the artist and the gallery has many purposes, one of which being insurance.  Typically, if a gallery damages an artist’s piece of work, they have to pay for it.  In other cases, the artist must insure their own work, and the gallery claims no fault.  Either way, a contract is important to iron out the agreed insurance policy between the two parties.
Forever and Always doesn’t require contracts between the artist and the art venue, and Condo explains that’s mainly because artists don’t expect to sell work in the venue, but rather to just get exposure.

The Shelf, an alternative art space in the Gay Street District of Columbus, Ohio, has revolving art, music, and theater performances year round in their office front.  They have presented work from local Columbus College of Art and Design students to nationally-known musicians like Strand of Oaks, yet they never require contracts.

“We didn’t have contracts, but we had guidelines and the art/performances on display were juried.” Faith Silver, a former resident at The Shelf, explains the space used lose agreements rather than binding contracts.

Although oral contracts and agreements can hold up in litigation, they are harder to enforce—especially when it comes to damaged art work where the cost may be high and the litigation is very personal.  However, Silver explained The Shelf’s insurance policy was very simple and straightforward: “because of the legal issues, there was no insurance. It was strictly at your own risk for the artist and musicians.”

If the alternative art space does not require contracts, then a simple at-your-own-risk disclaimer should prevent any litigation.  If there isn’t such a disclaimer, then any potential litigation would result in a run of the mill property damage case.

Alternative art spaces are becoming popular in cities all over the U.S., giving talented new artists an avenue for exposure and experience.  These are great spaces that bring community and artists together—we are lucky to have them.  As they become more popular, more legal issues may rise, but for now the average artist, alternative art space, and attorney just have to keep in mind the local zoning laws and the potential need for contracts.

For more information on alternative art spaces, please visit:


Featured Artist

Sara Condo is an interdisciplinary artist who currently resides in Chicago, IL.  Born and raised in Cicero, IL she is a third-generation Lithuanian-American who uses Chicago as a living site for exploration into the complexities of socio-economic class, psychology and gender.  Her work combines sound, photography, video and computer programming. Condo studied Media Arts at DePaul University and received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute in 2009. 

About the author

Katelyn Crawford

Katelyn is a graduate of George Mason University School of Law, where she studied economics as applied to law. She also completed course work at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. While living in Washington, D.C. Katelyn was a journalist, and worked in numerous policy areas including technology, military and education. She now works in financial compliance, and writes for multiple publications. When Katelyn isn't being a lawyer or writer, she is a photographer. You can follow her on twitter @WeSingSin.

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