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What Is Museum Law?

By Melissa Barrett
Updated May 16, 2024
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Museum law focuses on the unique interplay of a variety of laws governing the operation of museums. For museums, contracts for the sale or purchase of display pieces are common, as are contracts for the insurance of those pieces. Expansions and refurbishment fall under real estate law, and workers are governed by employment laws. As many museums are non-profit, most of these issues are further complicated by tax-law regulations. Fraud and attempted fraud are always a danger, so attorneys practicing museum law often need some level of criminal law training as well.

The scope of museum law is obviously very broad. As such, solitary attorneys specializing in the field are rare. More often, larger firms are called upon to represent museums. Within these firms, one or more attorneys are assigned to concentrate on a specific aspect of museum operations. When a complication arises that encompasses more than one area of law, these attorneys come together to work as a team.

An attorney specializing in tax law is essential in any firm specializing in museum law. Museums often rely heavily on their non-profit status for grants, government funding and tax exemptions. In addition, the statues are very strict in their definition of nonprofit. A sudden spike of income, such as a large donation or the sale of an artwork, could jeopardize the nonprofit status of a museum if not handled correctly.

When dealing with the sale or acquisition of an exhibit, it is not unusual to have a tax attorney teamed with a lawyer specializing in contracts. In these cases, the tax attorney will deal with the financial implications of the sale while the contract lawyer handles the specific terms of the agreement to ensure legality. In cases where the authenticity of a piece of work is in question, a fraud specialist may also be asked to join the team.

When a new museum is built or an existing museum is expanded, museum law teams can become almost comically large. Once again, the tax attorney is often called in to monitor finances. The contract specialist observes the negotiations for the land, materials and workmen or women. A lawyer specializing in real-estate is usually necessary to ensure that all permits are in order and that the land itself is free from liens.

In addition to the already large team, a lawyer focusing on insurance may be necessary to protect the museum from financial loss during the storage or movement of exhibits. Finally, new additions often require new employees. The hire of any additional workers by the museum, especially those working temporarily or in newly-created positions, may also require the input of an employment law specialist.

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