Jennifer Sullivan: A Lawyer on a Mission to Teach Artists How to Legally Protect Themselves and Their Work

As seen in:

Design Omnivore


When I went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s ARTRAGEOUS party, I had the pleasure of meeting a charming young woman named Jennifer Sullivan.  

Jennifer is an attorney at ThompsonMcMullan here in Richmond, and while I was already enjoying our conversation, I was especially delighted when Jennifer revealed that she is an upcoming speaker at Page Bond Gallery on the legal rights of visual artists.  Not all artists think about protecting themselves and their images, legally, but they should in these days of ready-to-download-and-copy-from-the-internet images.  And there are plenty of other ways that artists without a legal or business background can be taken advantage of – especially when it comes to contracts with clients.  Jennifer explained that she has really taken this up as a personal and professional cause.

Design Omnivore:  When did you become interested in art…. was it in childhood or adulthood or both?

Jennifer Sullivan:   Both!  I was not a fancy free child, and I took art seriously from a young age. I would crayon the coloring book to completion, crying over the imprecision of tired toddler hands, or would stand long hours at my red easel and go too far. (Bunnies can’t really support both bowties and bows atop their heads, for instance.) As a family, we were always Saturday museum goers.  I practiced large format photography (pouring bright flash in the dark of night, developing 16×20 black & white prints) and took art history classes in high school, then worked as a photographer’s assistant and photo archivist in college. Now my creative endeavors are lighter – stringing yarn and ribbon installations before dinner parties, forming paper flowers, selecting a particularly punchy bracelet bunch. I frequent First Fridays and carry watercolor pencils loose in all my handbags. I am no expert or art sophisticate, but I proudly purchased my first original painting last year, an abstract acrylic entitled Rose Gold by Michelle Armas. I consider an artful life the fullest life.

Design Omnivore:  What kind of law do you practice?
Jennifer Sullivan:  I am what I would classify as a hybrid attorney – a civil litigator handling all manner of contract disputes and a fair bit of transactional work for small businesses, in addition to trusts & estates, some real estate matters, and a number of family cases. In each realm, I take enormous pride in my role as counselor, instructor, and helper. Intellectual property, the area of law which governs creative enterprise, captured my interest before I ever opened a legal text. I am excited about growing my practice in that direction.

Design Omnivore:  What first inspired you to make a connection between your law practice and your interest in art?

Jennifer Sullivan:  I am a person who can never cite to single moments of transformation or inspiration, despite sparks, but I would say my desire to become a lawyer was born out of my interest in art.  I never felt I had the discipline to pursue art, so I pursued a field that protects and endorses art.  How can I use my academic leanings to be a part of what’s beautiful?  I have always been interested in coupling the pragmatic with the fanciful, and before law school, I studied literature alongside economics. It feels very natural to use my legal knowledge to benefit the arts. Richmond is such a vibrant creative community that the pairing makes sense. My firm, ThompsonMcMullan, is such a supporter of community involvement that the pairing is possible.

Design Omnivore:  What are you going to address in your talk at Page Bond Gallery?

Jennifer Sullivan:  The program (sponsored by the VBA’s Virginia Lawyers for the Arts) is called A Visual Artists’ Rights: An Overview of Legal Issues Relevant to Today’s Working Artist. With the great and generous help of Page Bond and Sarah Irvin, a local artist working in acrylic & mixed media, we have raised questions we invite all visual artists to consider.  I am very pleased that our collaboration has resulted in this opportunity to educate artists in their own ‘habitat.’  The presentation is meant to get yet-unmoving wheels spinning and to start a larger conversation about artists’ individual dilemmas or concerns, without the stodginess of traditional legal instruction.  As part of the talk, I will cover basic copyright law & some contract principles with the goal of dispelling misconceptions about who wields power in the art world and motivating artists who make art their livelihood to embrace and exploit their rights. (An example – my favorite slide reads: “The Artist is a Copyright Boss.”)
Design Omnivore:  What is one legal mistake that artists often unknowingly make?
Jennifer Sullivan:  Giving it all away! There is a stigma against mixing art and capitalism. If we agree art has innate cultural value and prize art, we should expect that those who make art should be compensated. I hope to encourage artists to consider themselves contenders in the marketplace, to, in some sense, take themselves more seriously… Artists should be hungry, yes. But why should the artist starve?
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