LA’s Chinese American Museum Is Being Sued for Trashing an Artist’s Work

The artist David Lew is alleging that the city of L.A. and the museum are both responsible for the negligent treatment of his art.

The Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. SoyTrends

During a moment in time in which American museums and artists are suffering enormously, it’s also important that the sanctity of artwork itself continues to be respected. According to the artist David Lew, who recently filed suit against the Chinese American Museum and the city of Los Angeles, his artwork was treated with negligence back in 2018, when Lew was part of an exhibition entitled “Don’t Believe the Hype: L.A. Asian Americans in Hip-Hop.” Lew’s contribution consisted of 88 hand-painted burlap sacks, which were hung in the museum’s courtyard as a commentary on the legacy of Chinese immigrants employed in the laundry business.

According to Lew, the point of his installation was that the sacks were meant to remain hung in the courtyard for eight months, so that they would accumulate wear and tear and eventually fade. Instead, his lawsuit alleges, without supervision from the Chinese American Museum staff, a maintenance crew from the city of L.A. removed the bags on December 7 of 2018. According to the Los Angeles Times, in defense of itself, the museum is arguing that only were they not aware that the bags were being removed by the city that day, they’re asserting that Lew’s burlap sacks were not artwork, but instead understood to be “merchandise hanging outdoors” that would later be sold to collectors and museum patrons.

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This seems, at the very least, like an insulting diminishment of an artist’s diligent labor, but artists frequently have to raise the alarm when their artwork is unceremoniously destroyed. In November, the Los Angeles-based artist Cosimo Cavallaro filed a lawsuit that claimed that federal contractors responsible for building Trump’s border wall destroyed Cavallaro’s project, which was 10 yards away: an under-construction 1,000-foot wall made out of cheese. In another recent case, the artist Samuel Kerson is filing suit against the Vermont Law School in the hopes of preventing his murals, which adorn the walls of the school and which depict the underground railroad and the fight against slavery, from being covered up with acoustic tiles.

And if you need yet more evidence that preserving and garnering respect for art in the United States is an exhausting uphill battle against often-uncaring federal powers, look no further than the saga of the iconic 5Pointz graffiti art gallery in New York City. Twenty-one street artists eventually were awarded $6.75 million in compensation for their artwork being destroyed by developers in 2014, but such a stunning win was essentially entirely unprecedented, and it took years to obtain. Operating as a lone artist, David Lew might have a harder time getting the financial results he desires from his lawsuit.

LA’s Chinese American Museum Is Being Sued for Trashing an Artist’s Work