An Artist Suing Meow Wolf for $1 Million Is on the Hook to Pay the Experiential Art Giant’s Legal Fees

As Lauren Adele Oliver’s nearly three-year legal battle with art entertainment giant Meow Wolf continues, a New Mexico federal judge has issued an order granting sanctions against the artist, who will have to pay the legal fees for two motions filed by the popular purveyor of immersive art experiences.

Oliver sued Meow Wolf in March 2020 over the copyright of her sculpture Space Owl. The towering furry figure is the centerpiece of her climate-change themed installation Ice Station Quellette at Meow Wolf’s flagship exhibition, “House of Eternal Return,” which opened in Santa Fe to widespread acclaim in 2016.

Meow Wolf allegedly promised Oliver an “artist revenue share” for her work as part of what was then considered an art collective. She says she was only paid $2,000, even though the company went on to raise millions from investors, eventually expanding to Las Vegas and Denver.

Last week, Judge Kirtan Khalsa ruled that should the case be heard by a jury, Meow Wolf will be allowed to bring evidence that Oliver had deleted five years of email correspondence prior to initiating litigation, Courthouse News reported. Previously, Khalsa had denied the company’s motion to issue sanctions on the matter, ruling that Oliver had not been planning to sue Meow Wolf when she deleted the messages in July 2018.

Lauren Adele Oliver with a <em>Space Owl</em> toy. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Lauren Adele Oliver with a Space Owl toy. Photo courtesy of the artist.

But Meow Wolf’s legal team discovered new evidence that made Khalsa change her mind. A day before the mass deletion, Oliver had sent a text message asking for someone to help her find a “big gun” attorney who would help her secure a better deal with Meow Wolf by threatening litigation.

After reviewing new evidence, Judge Kirtan Khalsa ruled that Oliver “acted in bad faith” because “litigation was reasonably foreseeable” given the deteriorating state of her relationship with Meow Wolf.

“The court found the timing of the deletion to be suspicious” as it came at a period of “a rising dispute” surrounding Space Owl, Khalsa wrote. The judge also noted, however, that she was not convinced that the “deleted [emails] contained information that, if discovered, would have harmed [Oliver’s] case.”

Oliver claimed she stopped using the email address in 2015, after she learned it had been compromised in a hacking attack perpetrated against her insurance company, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. She set up an auto-response to let contacts know the address was inactive, and conducted almost all of her correspondence with Meow Wolf at a new email account.

Lauren Adele Oliver's Space Owl at Meow Wolf's "House of Eternal Return." Photo by Gabriella Marks.

Lauren Adele Oliver/Quellette, Space Owl at Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return.” Photo by Gabriella Marks.

“The court’s ruling is complex, and we are weighing our options,” Oliver’s lawyer, Jesse A. Boyd, told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email. “This should not distract from the merits of the case. We intend to demonstrate at trial that Meow Wolf, Inc., impersonated an art collective in order to misappropriate the work of dozens of artists, including Lauren’s, as well as the labor of hundreds of volunteers and the financial support of the Santa Fe community in order to launch their entertainment empire.”

The latest ruling is just a small part of the case pending before Khalsa, who has scheduled a settlement conference for January 18. If the two sides fail to reach an agreement, the long-running dispute could go to trial.

As of press time, lawyers for Meow Wolf had not responded to inquiries from Midnight Publishing Group News.

In the lawsuit, Oliver is seeking more than $1 million in compensation, arguing that Space Owl, which she first created in 2006, was integral to Meow Wolf’s initial success, and widely used in its marketing and merchandise. Midnight Publishing Group News included “House of Eternal Return” on its list of the 100 defining works of the decade, with a photo of Space Owl illustrating the groundbreaking installation.

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The British Museum Wants to Hire a Curator to Fix Its Biggest Problems (Without Having to Pay Too Much) + Other Stories

Art Industry News is a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market. Here’s what you need to know on this Wednesday, March 10.


Meet the Early Investors in NFTs – Who on earth is actually spending tens of thousands of dollars (or more!) on NFT art? ARTnews offers an introduction to some of the cryptocurrency-rich players, including 28-year-old Tim Kang, founder of Cue Music and an Ethereum backer, who fell for digital art in 2016 after buying a work by crypto-artist Pak for $42,720. Alvaro Luken, an ex crypto-miner, was another early adopter. He bought one of artist Beeple’s early drops when editions cost $1 each and later resold it for $700. Now, similar works are going for exponentially more than that. (ARTnews)

EU High Court Says Embedded Images Can Violate Copyright – The European Court of Justice has found that embedding content from copyright holders on third-party websites without permission could be a violation. (Similar cases are underway, but currently undecided, in the United States.) The ruling came as part of a legal battle between the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and a copyright protection organization, VG Bild-Kunst. The upshot: If images are embedded on a website without permission, it could be seen as a violation of copyright, provided that the copyright holder took steps to prevent the reuse by, for example, specifying that they did not want their images to be embedded elsewhere. (Courthouse News, Monopol)

British Museum Seeks Curator for Big Job (and Not Much Money) – The British Museum is hiring an experienced curator to oversee “a comprehensive redisplay of the galleries” as part of the museum’s new master plan. The redisplay intends to “make it easier to understand the connections between different cultures, both ancient and modern,” after the institution came under fire in recent years for misrepresenting the Americas (lumping North and South America together in the same space) and marginalizing its Africa displays (which are located in the basement). The lead curator’s salary is £48,169 (around $66,000) for a 24-month contract. As art critic Jason Farago pointed out on Twitter, “The enduring problem with the British Museum and other London institutions: a curator experienced enough to take on a job as difficult and important as this does not work for £48k.” (The Art Newspaper)

The Rise of the Artist Talent Agency – Artists are increasingly eschewing the traditional gallery model in favor of entertainment-style talent agencies. Hollywood’s Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency, and United Talent Agency have sections for the visual arts—and there is also a growing number of start-ups focused specifically on brand-building for individual artists. These include Southern & Partners, founded by former Blain Southern partner Graham Southern, which has started working with Bill Viola and Elias Sime. (TAN)


Winston Churchill’s Slippers Fetch More Than $40,000 – The market appetite for all things Winston Churchill shows no sign of abating after a pair of the wartime prime minister’s slippers sold for nearly £40,000 ($55,000) at a UK auction yesterday. The monogrammed slippers from the 1950s hit the block alongside a brandy glass used by Churchill, which raked in £18,300 ($25,000). (Evening Standard)

Cynthia Erivo Will Curate Sotheby’s Sale – The actor and singer, best known for her Tony Award-winning role as Celie Harris in The Color Purple on Broadway (and here at Midnight Publishing Group News HQ, for her fantastic turn in the HBO series The Outsider), will organize Sotheby’s New York’s contemporary curated auction on March 12. Erivo has selected 16 pieces, including a work by Ruth Asawa and Andy Warhol’s portrait of Aretha Franklin. (Barron’s)


Artists Shortlisted for the Preis der Nationalgalerie – Artists Lamin Fofana, Sandra Mujinga, Sung Tieu, and artist duo Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff have been shortlisted for the prestigious award for artists under 40 in Germany. A selection of their works will go on view at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin from September 16 through February 27, 2022. The winner will be announced on October 7. (Monopol)

Workers at MASS MoCA and Studio in a School Launch Unionization Efforts – The number of art workers launching union efforts just keeps on growing. Staff at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will vote on joining UAW Local 2110, citing “job insecurity, inequitable conditions, low salaries, and pandemic layoffs.” Meanwhile, artists and staff at New York’s Studio in a School are taking a vote of their own, saying they want more predictability in assignments and transparency in scheduling decisions. (Berkshire Eagle, New York Times)


Top Artists Donate Work to Benefit Food Banks – Blue-chip artists including Lorna Simpson, Louise Lawler, and Rirkrit Tiravanija have donated work to the Artists Support project in New York, which aims to raise funds for local organizations and food banks. Prints are available in exchange for donations of between $3,000 and $35,000 made directly to the artist’s selected charity. (TAN)

Noldor Artist Residency Expands in Ghana – Ghana’s Noldor artist residency has announced a major expansion. Set in a 700-square-meter former pharmaceutical warehouse in Accra, the residency plans to incorporate and repurpose additional industrial spaces. The annual four-week program for contemporary African artists will also add a year-long fellowship aimed at emerging and mid-career artists from Africa and its diaspora. (Press release)

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UK Galleries Will Benefit From a Court Ruling Forcing Insurers to Pay Businesses for Losses Incurred During Lockdown

Art galleries are among the hundreds of thousands of UK businesses that are celebrating after the country’s highest court ruled that insurers must pay out to policyholders for coronavirus-related losses.

The country’s Supreme Court ruled that “business interruption” insurance policies should cover financial setbacks incurred during the ongoing pandemic and enforced lockdowns. 

The ruling was handed down on Friday, January 15, when Supreme Court judges dismissed appeals from insurance companies arguing against an earlier court decision that they should honor most claims for losses caused by business interruptions, including clauses for “disease” and “prevention of access.”

The case, which was first brought before the High Court by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, and its verdict, will affect some 370,000 businesses, including those from the arts sector, holding 700 types of policies issued by 60 insurers.

“Coronavirus is causing substantial loss and distress to businesses and many are under immense financial strain to stay afloat,” the executive director for Consumers and Competition at the FCA, Sheldon Mills, said in a statement, adding that the judgment “decisively removes many of the roadblocks to claims by policyholders.” 

The government body will now be working with insurers to see that they move quickly to pay what is due.

“The ruling means that a number of museums, galleries, dealers, and other art market professionals that have had their business-interruption insurance coverage refused to date, can now progress their claim,” Rudy Capildeo, partner at the law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, tells Midnight Publishing Group News. Capildeo’s firm is currently working on insurance issues with more than 50 organizations in the arts sector on a no win/no fee basis.

But the expert warns that arts businesses are not out of the woods yet, as the ruling did not comment on how the losses suffered should be calculated. “Clients should be very careful when submitting their losses to their brokers or insurers,” Capildeo advises, adding that he has seen insurers behave “incredibly aggressively” towards clients in an effort to reduce the payments they are required to make. 

Capildeo, who says his firm is happy to provide some initial free advice to clients, predicts that insurers will “redraw the battle lines” around the losses businesses have suffered and attempt to argue that they are not directly attributable to Covid-19.

“The unfortunate truth is that insurers have not supported museums and arts businesses through this pandemic,” Capildeo says, adding that the ten month delay in reaching the decision has come too late for a number of organizations.

None of the firm’s gallery and museum clients wanted to speak to Midnight Publishing Group News about their insurers out of fear that it might impact the progress of their claims or reveal to the market their need to rely on insurance cover to keep their business going. Capildeo did say, however, that the clients that have already received payouts have commented that they have been a “critical lifeline” during this period.

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