Q&A with Katherine de Vos Devine, a lawyer who ‘speaks artist’

ART SMART: Lawyer and art historian Katherine de Vos Devine is drawn to working with creatives. Photo by Nicole McConville

Originally from North Carolina, Katherine de Vos Devine found herself uprooted at a young age when her father moved the family to New York City for a new job. In many ways, this transplant shaped Devine’s life. “I grew up in a diverse and bohemian apartment building, surrounded by actors, dancers, artists and elderly Ziegfeld girls!” She recalls. “Many of my schoolmates’ parents were artists, makers and performers. Thus, I always understood ‘working artist’ as a perfectly normal and financially supportive career.”

After earning a Ph.D. in art history from Duke University and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law, Devine moved to Asheville in 2015 to become the executive director of Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. Today, she works as a lawyer and self-proclaimed guide to artists, helping creative entrepreneurs shape their legacies. That is, when she isn’t building LEGO structures with her husband and daughter, or getting lost in forests around her home.

Xpress spoke with Devine about intellectual property, feelings and when artists need to hire a lawyer.

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

What does it mean to be a lawyer who “speaks artist”? 

Artists don’t write and speak like your average next-door neighbor, so I have found the way I describe concepts is more intelligible than their prior experiences with other lawyers.When I’m talking to a client about whether or not to register a trademark — let’s specifically say a wordmark — we do talk about if it’s the most strategic choice for their brand or finances. But we also talk about whether or not they want to curate the meaning of that word. We determine if the artist wants to participate in the way the word is understood by the general public. Because with a trademark, you have to assertively go out and police others who are attempting to use the word in a way that might cause confusion around your brand, goods or services. I help determine if that is a responsibility a client wants, which is a different way of approaching it. That tends to help the client make the decision more quickly and authentically than if I were to present the legal concepts in a traditional manner.

What kind of law services do artists need?

Every client service I provide grows from intellectual property, which includes contracts, business formations, wills, trusts and estates, copyright and trademark. In the next year, we will start our ProBono Artist Legacy Clinic, which will help artists under a certain income threshold to get set up with … a will, power of attorney and an advance directive. That will ensure they are minimally prepared should anything happen to them or their work.

What exactly is intellectual property?

Intellectual property is our social attempt to capture and define creatives’ efforts and remunerate them. My master’s degree is in the history of art markets and how intellectual property came to be and how it affects art. So when I got to law school, I was simply captivated with the history and definition of creative work as a form of property.

Artists are often not paid as well as investment bankers or venture capitalists. Part of that is because the idea of property is a social construct — which most of us are taught in kindergarten, such as you have to share. But if one child is sitting there drawing a house and another child copies them exactly, there are going to be big feelings that happen. So how do we, as adults, create some sort of framework that governs the use of someone else’s idea? I often joke that my work is all about faeries and feelings because ideas feel so personal and intrinsic to us.

This is our Women in Business issue, so I’d like to know what inspired you to go into business for yourself? 

So many artists asked me for help, and I didn’t know to whom I could refer them. I didn’t know other lawyers who would communicate in a more casual and creative way that I find so important in my work.

What excites you about working with artists? 

Perhaps it stems from the presence of feelings. Some entrepreneurs want to get the boxes checked fast and don’t necessarily want to understand the process. My clients are really interested in why the boxes exist and need to be checked off at all, and so my business has grown into a very holistic legal practice. Sure, I can go and bust out a bunch of copyright registrations, but I’d much rather host a clinic where I can educate clients on when to register a piece of work. I’d much rather them understand what the copyright office is and how to write a simple cease-and-desist when their work is being infringed.

When they feel empowered in that way, they take chances and their practices grow, because they know what they are doing and they have a sense of agency. When something happens and they do need my help, they can give me a call, and we can get it done really fast because they understand the whole framework they are working in.

When is the best time for an artist to start working with a lawyer? 

Before they think it’s necessary, like when you want to feel really confident you didn’t miss anything for an upcoming project. Law is a puzzle, and lawyers have been trained as experts to think differently and, in some ways, catastrophize. I love using my anxiety as a way to soothe other people’s anxiety, because I’m a big believer in preventive medicine and action when it comes to business setup.

Who are some of your favorite local artists? 

Oh my gosh, it’s like choosing a favorite child! The two artists currently hanging in my office are Alysia Fischer and Amy Putansu. I buy art that challenges me, lights up a part of my brain that doesn’t have language or causes me to have continuous or new insights. — Johanna Hagarty


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