William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Sign on the Dotted Line

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LACMA visitors experiencing James Turrell’s perceptual cell Light Reignfall are required to sign a legal waiver clearing the museum of any responsibility for harm. Waivers are becoming more common as contemporary art ventures into participatory-funhouse-mad scientist territory. They are often met with cynicism: It’s a symptom of our lawsuit-happy society, or it’s a publicity gimmick. (I’m writing about it, right?)

Do waivers make sense? How does a museum gauge risk for an artwork that might have been shown rarely or not at all?

Carsten Höller, "Psycho Tank" Photo: Attilio Maranzano

The waiver trend gained traction in October  2011, when New York’s New Museum required waivers for three works in its “Carsten Höller: Experience,” including the signature 102-foot slide and the Giant Psycho Tank, a sensory deprivation pool.

Waivers have older antecedents. The Whitney Museum’s 1980 Turrell show incurred several injuries and at least two lawsuits over the installation City of Arhirit. Some visitors felt dizzy and tried to steady themselves against a “wall” that happened to be an optical illusion. One fell and sprained her wrist. She sued the Whitney for $250,000. Another visitor actually broke her arm and sued for a more realistic $10,000.

An insurance company settled and countersued Turrell until a Whitney family member stepped in to settle the counter-claim.

Turrell said of the injuries, “On some level, you’d have to say I failed.” Would that the average American corporation displayed that candor.

James Turrell, "City of Ahirit" Photo by Florian Holzherr

Artists (and corporations for that matter) invent new things. It is not possible to know all the risks beforehand. A flaw in an app, a skateboard, or a jet liner may not become evident until thousands or millions of people have used it without incident. As they say in Silicon Valley, everything is a beta release.

Museum legal departments have a more cautious mindset. Nobody ever got fired for saying you ought to disclose the worst-case scenario upfront and get a written release. That presumably accounts for the grim-reaper language of LACMA’s Light Reignfall contract. Here is section 4:

It’s tough to say whether waivers would absolve a museum or artist of responsibility, should an injury occur. I imagine the signed waiver would merely be a talking point in court or a bargaining chip in an out-of-court settlement. Such is the law.

Waivers are not always about physical harm. This year’s MOCA Teen Night waiver reads like any school field trip permission until you get to the bit about “the right to take photographs of my teenager… for any lawful purpose.” Those rights accrue also to the Louis Vuitton Young Arts Program—whatever that is, exactly.

Deitch-era MOCA offers branding opportunities on the waiver .pdf itself, for the coolest of corporate partners.

Waiver, schmaiver. Nobody beats Hollywood Boulevard’s Museum of Death for a plain-language heads up. Here is the back of its admission ticket.

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  1. by Christopher Knight

    One of my favorite examples is on the plaza steps to the Getty Museum, where a label for Aristide Maillol’s 1938 sculpture of a reclining nude says something along the lines of “WARNING: This work contains lead, which is known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

    I suppose that’s preferable to “Please don’t lick the sculpture.”

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