Fabricating solid relationships: An interview with art lawyer, Yayoi Shionoiri

Art lawyer, Yayoi Shionoiri, speaks to art market journalist Riah Pryor, about the complex relationship between artists and fabricators

You’ve been working with artists for years on many issues, including on the relationship between artists and fabricators. Has this always been an area of interest for you, or is it an issue you feel is of increasing importance?

Both. The relationship between artists and the production of their works has been a consideration of the Western art trade for years; the challenges that have surfaced, for example, with certain Degas editions, confirm the significance of understanding the relationship between artists and those fabricating their works-both in the artists’ lifetime and posthumously.

There remains a growing need to appreciate the nuances surrounding these relationships, in part, because they are often bespoke, and, in part, because the nature, process and materials of artwork are varied and continue to evolve.  

What are the fundamental issues we’re touching on here then?

The intellectual property of the artwork and the physical ownership of the fabricated property, where both inherently belong to the artist, regardless of how large a role the fabricator plays in its physical realization – or possibly with technological advances – digital realization.

That seems quite straightforward, in the sense that the artist is commissioning a fabricator to deliver services. But, often with art installations you can see that the so-called ‘fabricators’, or technicians, have actually played quite a key role in the development of the artwork itself. Some of these technicians might consider themselves artists or creative professionals in their own right.

So how are we delineating between ‘fabricator’ and ‘collaborator’ ? And would the latter have a ‘right’ to the work?

These situations come up more recently when there is a group of experts that contribute specific skills to an overall project or artwork. While the final artwork is by the artist, there are a growing number of instances where the artist credits the creative contributions of others who were involved in bringing their vision to life, whether producing elements or sourcing materials. That doesn’t change the artist’s copyright ownership in and property ownership of the artwork, but it does go further to recognise the more collaborative artistic processes we often see today.

So where can it go wrong?

Where clarity of roles and communication falls short. And this is not as unusual as you’d think, particularly given that artists often work through their ideas as a process, rather than engage fabricators with clearly delineated roles from the outset. 

I have also found that some art forms, notably sculpture, can pose more challenges than mediums with preconceived formats and methods, such as printing, because of the varied output possible with sculpture that guides the complexities of the arrangement.

I guess the next question then, is how can artists ensure it doesn’t go wrong?

As ever, contracts are key, including, for example, measures for the return of moulds to an artist upon their notice to the fabricator, or to trigger a discussion with the estate upon the artist’s passing on next steps for those moulds, and the outlining of artist intent, to support the completion of an edition of works, in the event that numbered copies within an edition take time to be produced. 

We often hear of the importance of contracts and expanding opportunities to record artwork details on blockchain or advanced platforms, but a lot of the art world still likes to make agreements over a handshake.  Is that going to change?

It has started to. The take-up of new technology in certain areas of the art world has been impressive and really demonstrates the trade’s readiness to speed up efficiency of data collecting. But I’m also conscious that some areas of the art world are taking a bit longer to acclimatize itself to newer ways of working.