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Goodbye, Art. Hello, Commerce.

Take a good look at the MADI Museum. It may not be around much longer.
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If you were to visit the Web site of Kilgore & Kilgore, PLLC--the 58-year-old law film specializing in, among other things, cases dealing with intellectual property and personal-injury class actions--you will see seven serious-looking attorneys posed in front of a building bursting with color. That building, located at 3109 Carlisle Street in Uptown, is home to Kilgore's offices, the Kilgore Law Center and the MADI Museum, the latter designed and created by artist Volf Roitman, who transformed the entirety of the two-story, 16,564-square-foot 1970s building into one of the few pieces of public artwork on display in Dallas. And he did so with the owner of the building and the law firm, Bill Masterson, who, with his wife Dorothy, brought in Roitman to turn a bland building into something blindingly bright and otherworldly--a burst of sunlight on an otherwise dimly lit lot.

The MADI Museum, with its facade consisting of 65 laser-cut panels painted by the artist, opened three years ago with great fanfare and gushing praise; writing in The Dallas Morning News, architecture critic David Dillon celebrated the building for adding to "the fledgling funkiness of McKinney Avenue," while Peter Frank of the LA Weekly insisted that "not since the Museum of non-Objective Art in New York morphed into the Guggenheim Museum more than half a century ago has there been anything like this in North America."

The MADI Museum's Web site is full of such accolades, as well as a glowing recounting of how Roitman and the Mastersons fell in love some 12 years ago over a 60-plus-year-old Argentinian-born art movement no one can really describe. We tried a few years back, and got no further than this attempt: "Some speculate it means 'movement, abstraction, dimension and invention,' but no one is positive what the letters stand for."

And now, Volf Roitman isn't sure whether the building and the artwork he created in and around it will stand for much longer. Just three years after the MADI Museum opened, there's a good chance it could be leveled to make way for condos--because the very people who commissioned Roitman to overhaul the building are trying to sell it, potentially to developers who would reduce the whole thing to a pile of bricks and bolts. At least, that's what Trammell Crow Co. representatives are suggesting in their listing for the property at 3109 Carlisle. Says right there on the Web site: "vacant land" for sale, some 44,000 square feet of it, with a proposed use for "multifamily" development. There is no mention of Roitman's work on the exterior of the building--which would not survive the building's sale, because even moving it would be impossible. As Roitman says in legal documents sitting in the Dallas federal courthouse: "The panels are so thin, were they to be removed, there would no way to keep them intact." Which is why Roitman, using a Richardson-based attorney, has filed for a temporary injunction in U.S. District Court, Northern Division, seeking to prevent the sale of the building and the destruction of his artwork.

His attorney, Jonathan Winocour of Winocour & Scarbrough, filed the application on April 19. Winocour claims that if the Kilgore Law Center Investment Group, LP, sells the building and allows its demolition--and the destruction of Roitman's work--then the owners will be violating a federal statute. And, indeed, the government in 1990 did pass a law that protects artists' work from harm. Called the Visual Artists Rights Act, it says, in part, that the author of a work of visual art has the right:

"(A) to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and

(B) to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right."

Roitman says in his affidavit, filed with the court April 19, that "if the building is destroyed, the artworks [involved in] this controversy will not survive, snce the artworks are organically integrated with the building and cannot be removed without their destruction."

"We're not tring to retsrict their right to sell their property, although that may be the effect," says Winocour. "Our intent is to protect the artwork on the fa�ade. If someone wants to buy the building and preserve the fa�ade, we're not going to object, but it's been advertised as vacant land, and no one is contemplating the preservation of the building." Except, of course, Roitman and his attorneys.

On May 2, Kilgore Law Center Investment Group filed its own documents with the court. They claim Roitman's desire to save his artwork has "greatly reduced" the property's value, by some $75,000, and that it would be rendered valueless should the court grant the injunction "since the market value of the land without the building and Plaintiff's alleged 'artwork' is substantially" more than the value of the land with the building and art. Kilgore's response, which is signed by none other than Bill Masterson, insists that Roitman only wants the art to stand "solely to protect his own 'honor,' 'reputation' and ego," and says that Roitman got plenty out of his affiliation with the building and law firm "in terms of publicity, prestige, honor and reputation from" Kilgore. Masterson's also claiming there's no legit claim under the VARA, since Roitman's was a work for hire--meaning Masterson bought it and can do what he pleases with the installation. (Masterson was unavailable for comment.)

This battle will likely rage on for months, well into next year: A jury trial has tentatively been set for February, and till then Roitman will try to get the court to grant an injunction to stay the building's demolition at least till legal proceedings are finished. It could get pretty messy; it usually is when a federal statute such as the Visual Artists Rights Act, is involved.

"The point is, the artwork is unique and kind of special, a wonderful expresson of public art," Winocour says. "Dallas has very little, unlike New York or Los Angeles, because there's not a lot of public investment in this city. We have billionaire philanthropists like Ray Nasher, but there's little public art, and it would be nice to present it in a city that likes to see itself as a world-class city. If it wants to be London or Paris it needs to encourage this. And it's great that at one time Mr. Masterson did...but if you challenge the constituionality of a statute designed to protect the artist and work and cast yourself as a patron of the arts, I think you're talking our of both sides of your mouth." --Robert Wilonsky

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