Gees Bend Quilters: Locked Out of Profits?


The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, originally uploaded by justinsfpics.

 

Images of her handmade quilts adorn postage stamps, Visa gift cards and $5,000 rugs, but Annie Mae Young and some of the other quilters who made Gee’s Bend famous say they missed out on what has turned into a giant payday.

— Alabama Press Register, Gee’s Bend quilters claim big rip-off

 

Annie Mae Young is suing William Arnett and others, saying that she never received royalties or any other payment for any of the spin-off merchandising associated with the quilts she made. And the quilts, which have sold for up to $20,000 USD, have been purchased from her for only a few hundred dollars, even after their value on the market went up.

At what point does a “discovered” artist start to become victimized by the same agreement that brought her success in the first place? What legal or moral responsibility does one party to a contract have when the other party is illiterate? Is the contract even enforceable under those circumstances?

This is going to be an interesting lawsuit to watch. The claim is that over $1 million in royalties have gone back to the community of Gee’s Bend — but no one seems to know where it went.

3 comments

  1. I think the truth may lie somewhere in between. I find it difficult to buy all the charges because I met her and the quilters when they were guests of the Cleveland Museum of Art and their commercial goods were all over the giftshop…in the summer of 2004. And in conversation and a round table presentation the ladies were praising the Arnetts and thanking God for bringing Bill A. into their lives. Perhaps some later contracts (rugs, etc) were sketchier. Interesting article, though! I’m going to follow this story. My GB post: http://bemused.typepad.com/bemused/2005/05/the_quilters_of.html

  2. Jan,I think you’re right — and I do think there are some fair questions to be asked. If I sat down and thought about it long enough, I’m sure there are many other examples of artists who were thrilled to get the recognition and signed financial agreements that, as merchandising became more profitable, they viewed as “unfair.” Of course, the backer who brings develops the recognition and market is taking the financial risk up front. Mix in a large disparity in education, and you can have a hoot-nanny of a lawsuit where it’s easy to jump to conclusions on either side of the case. I wonder where museums fall on the issue? Any thoughts?

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