June 18, 2015

Legal Help for Small Arts Organizations

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What kinds of legal safeguards should we be thinking about in the day-to-day business of running a small arts organization in New York City? What areas of our work most demand attention?

Recognizing the legal needs of the arts sector, Lawyers Alliance for New York created the Community Arts Program Priorities in 2012. Since then, it has provided legal services and education to numerous arts groups, resulting in more than 200 new business law and transactional matters for 174 non-profit clients in three years, including services to more than 80 arts organizations in the past year. Lawyers Alliance is coordinating with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) to assist additional arts organizations with legal services.

Hiring a lawyer – or having one on the board in case of need – is rarely an option for small organizations. Calling friends who are lawyers to talk through a concern can stretch the bounds of goodwill when done once too often.  For some situations, getting sound and affordable legal assistance is necessary. But for many scenarios, building our own knowledge base can ensure we are doing our best to avoid difficult or expensive situations and legal wrangles with colleagues and others in our field.

For example, for arts non-profits operating with a small professional staff, hiring freelance workers is commonplace. Whether a PR consultant or teaching artist, a simple contract laying out the requirements, time-frame, and terms is essential to meeting project expectations. This is equally important for artistic collaborative projects and commissions, even if the parties are friends or colleagues. Many a friendship has been tested in collaborative projects when terms and expectations have been assumed and not articulated in a collaborative agreement.

Renting space for the preparation and performance of artistic work is one of the most expensive and stressful aspects of preparing and presenting the arts in New York City. When renting a performance venue, it’s particularly important to read and understand the venue’s contract.  A clause that allows the venue to cancel the booking at any time, for example, can have a devastating impact on marketing and production elements and result in the stress and unanticipated expense of finding alternative space in a short time-frame.  Restrictions on food and alcohol service can also impact on the success of a fundraising event or anticipated income from concession sales.

Issues of governance, questions about by-law modifications, matters relating to intellectual property and the use or ownership of a performance or visual art piece, the legal requirements for winding up a non-profit, and legal options for dealing with HR problems are among the many quandaries that can keep a busy arts administrator awake at night. The Lawyers Alliance of New York can help organizations build understanding in these and other areas through their workshop series. In situations where legal services are needed, an organization can apply for free or low-cost legal assistance.

Avoiding situations that could result in a collaboration or working relationships falling apart, a project being canceled, or worse still, a legal situation occurring which will tip lean budgets seriously into the red, is paramount for the small arts organization.

Has your non-profit arts organization faced a legal issue recently? How did you resolve it?