Council and Counselors Working for Art’s Sake

1/16/2013  - 

This article previously appeared in the Columbus Bar Lawyers Quarterly (Winter 2013).

It’s not unusual for local artists and arts organizations to struggle finding money to pay for rent and utilities, much less legal assistance.

That’s why the Greater Columbus Arts Council, Columbus Bar Association, Capital University Law School Small Business Clinic and some local attorneys have teamed up to support the Central Ohio arts community by providing pro bono legal services to local artists and arts organizations.

The GCAC/CBA Arts Legal Assistance Program was established in September 2010 through the efforts of Jason Beehler, an associate with Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, who worked for the GCAC before attending law school. The GCAC gave him unique insights into the legal needs of local artists – and a realization that often those needs were unmet due to many artists’ inability to afford legal counsel.

Beehler advocated for the creation of the Arts Legal Assistance Program, which supports individual artists and small arts groups with contract and licensing agreement review, copyright and trademark issues, and for-profit and nonprofit entity formation and counseling. That’s where Capital’s Small Business Clinic stepped in to help.

The SBC is a class that gives Capital University Law School students practical experience working with real clients on transactional matters. The students work under the supervision of the SBC’s supervising attorney, Eric McLoughlin, on a variety of small business and nonprofit cases. The Arts Legal Assistance Program has referred a number of individuals and organizations to the SBC.

The Children Shall Lead Them Productions operates a performing arts program for local youths. The program uses the power of the arts to cultivate self-esteem, image and awareness in local children through their participation in the organization’s theatrical performances.

The SBC helped the organization’s founder, LeRoyna Edwards, form an Ohio nonprofit corporation and an IRS application for tax-exempt status that was granted in January.

Jeffrey Partlow, a 2012 CapLaw graduate, worked with Edwards on the IRS application. Partlow said this experience gave him insights into the process of forming a tax-exempt nonprofit and helped him improve his client interviewing and counseling skills. All of that will be good experience for his future legal practice.

Edwards said she is grateful for the chance to work with the SBC in turning her program into an Ohio nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation. She said she was impressed with the level of compassion, competency and professionalism of the young lawyers Capital University Law School is producing. McLoughlin’s students gave her a thorough and successful application that included articles of incorporation, bylaws and directions for her next steps as a nonprofit.

“They truly went above and beyond the call of duty,” Edwards said. She hopes her organization’s increased structure and tax-exempt status will allow it to grow to serve more local youths.

Phillip Martin is a local illustrator who maintains a clip art website that offers free artwork for teachers to use in classroom lessons. Martin also gets requests to use his art for commercial purposes. The SBC helped draft standard client contracts for his use, provided counsel on copyright infringement issues, and helped stop the unauthorized reproduction of his artwork on a competing website.

Sierra See, a 2012 CapLaw graduate, worked with Martin on these projects.

“This experience gave me the opportunity to use the legal drafting skills I've acquired at school in a real-world setting,” See said. “It also allowed me to provide an invaluable community service while earning school credit.”

Martin said participating in the Arts Legal Assistance Program was a positive experience. Although he understood a few of the needs for his site, the help he received from the ALAP was more than he expected or even requested. “I was provided very specific legal help and suggestions to protect my art and clarify the terms on my website,” he said.

Columbus Music and Art Academy formed a tax-exempt nonprofit organization in 2003 without legal assistance. Since then, it has operated an after-school and summer program that offers choir, music theory and art classes to local children who primarily live on the north side of Columbus. Some of its choirs participate in regional, national and international competitions.

CMAA sought legal counsel related to compliance with federal and Ohio law. Jessica Samuel, a 2012 CapLaw graduate, helped CMAA amend its organizing documents to streamline the corporate formalities the organization must follow to comply with Ohio law. She said the experience opened her eyes to an entirely new area of the law and that it has broadened her perspective about the types of legal issues live clients face.

Ilya Utkin, the organization’s secretary, said, "It was pleasure to work with Eric McLoughlin and SBC students. They took time to understand our issues, made extensive research and gave excellent recommendations. Based on their advice, we are changing many practices in our organization.”

New Players Theater Festival is a local theater company that had been operating as an unincorporated association for a little more than a year. It recently completed its second annual summer festival, where the company performed King Lear and Scapin in repertory.

The SBC helped NPTF convert its legal structure to a nonprofit corporation. It is currently helping the group through the process of obtaining tax-exempt status as a charitable organization from the IRS and is providing advice on legal and tax compliance issues commonly faced by small nonprofits.

Beatrice Nokuri, a 2012 CapLaw graduate, said the project gave her a greater appreciation for the breadth of the legal considerations, planning issues and tax implications a startup nonprofit faces.

Tim Browning, NPTF’s Artistic Director, said, “Working with the CBA/GCAC has been an absolute pleasure. As a new arts organization, we were overwhelmed by the volume of legal material that was needed to incorporate and become a bona fide nonprofit entity while continuing to create theater on the level on which we needed to create it. Thanks to Eric and Beatrice, we have been able to focus on creating art. They took the time to learn about our organization and what our short- and long-term goals were. They went well beyond ensuring that we were a legal entity, and have taken measures to help us thrive.”

Local artists and small arts organizations seeking additional information about the Arts Legal Assistance Program may contact Ruby Harper. People interested in learning more about the SBC can access its website or contact McLoughlin at 614-236-6245.