Money-Making and Public Art-Loving: The Image of Chicago

The following post is by guest blogger Kristina Maldre of the National Archives at Chicago.  Thanks Kristina!

Kids slide down the base of the Picasso statue in Chicago. Tourists stare at themselves and the skyline in the surface of “The Bean.” Nine-to-fivers shuffle under the red Calder piece in the Federal Plaza to their offices five days a week. Not only does the public visit, interact, and play with Chicago’s outdoor art, but the city’s image has been shaped by many of these large, accessible pieces. Yet who owns public art? Who can financially benefit from the reproduction of these pieces?

In 1967, the City of Chicago Public Building Commission claimed they maintained the copyright to the Chicago Picasso statute. They created and distributed a policy statement regarding the use and sale of reproductions. For example, one stipulation was that the city would grant licenses to parties interested in making two-dimensional (postcards, photographs, books) reproductions for gift or profit for $250.00 and royalties of five percent.

The Letter Edged in Black Press, Inc. challenged the city’s claim of copyright in a 1969 civil court case within the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. They argued that interested parties should be allowed to reproduce the image of the Chicago Picasso statue without paying the city a fee or providing a percentage of the royalties from products. Their argument asserted that Pablo Picasso had presented his work as gift to the people of Chicago, and that the image of the statue was already in use and in the public domain prior to a copyright plaque being attached.

The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, The Letter Edged in Black Press, Inc., and stated the city could not charge for reproductions. The Chicago Picasso was free and open to the public.

While this case, 69C353 “The Letter Edged in Black Press, Inc. vs. Public Building Commission of Chicago,” presents an interesting tale of copyright law and public art in the sixties, it also highlights the story of Chicago’s Picasso. The plaintiff’s request for documents and the admission of facts leads to an entire treasure trove of records. In this case correspondence between William Hartman, Public Building Commission of Chicago members, Pablo Picasso, and the Art Institute; plans for the sculpture and plaque; dedication ceremony materials; affidavits from those involved in the statue’s construction; initial postcards for sale in the Art Institute; and businesses requests to use the image capture the creation of a piece of art synonymous with the City of Chicago.

Next time you’re in Chicago pay our Picasso a visit and look for any signs of the old copyright statement ©1967 Public Buildings Commission.  Then stop by and visit our facility at 7358 S. Pulaski Road in Chicago to examine the entire court case.

In the meantime, you can view sample documents from this case on our Facebook page.  Further information on U.S. District Court Records found in Record Group 21 for the Great Lakes states can be found online

The Chicago Picasso statue after installation, but before the dedication ceremony on August 15, 1967 (left), and the statue unveiled. Photographs from case 69C353: The Letter Edged in Black Press, Inc. vs. Public Building Commission of Chicago in records of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, RG 21.

Chicago Picasso Covered

Chicago Picasso

2 thoughts on “Money-Making and Public Art-Loving: The Image of Chicago

  1. I had no luck finding the promised sample documents on the Facebook page. Too bad the entire case file isn’t online.

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