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Creative Rights
Photo by Jo Mathis

MLaw grads start nonprofit to help artists navigate legal waters

By John Masson
July 23, 2012

Brandon Weiner may not have known what he was getting into when he checked out an art show one day at North End Studios in Detroit.

The recent Michigan Law grad was simply indulging his longstanding love of art, but instead ended up with a new client for the one-of-a-kind legal nonprofit he had recently established in Ann Arbor with his MLaw classmate, Travis Rimando.

The two, both artists themselves, founded their Ann Arbor–based nonprofit, Creative Rights, after they graduated in 2011. The deal is simple: If you're an individual artist—a writer, painter, musician, potter, journalist, or countless other creative professions—you're eligible to join Creative Rights for $50 per year. Organizations get the same deal for $100 per year.

In return, Creative Rights will represent your interests in cases common to artists.

"No one has done something like this before," said Rimando, who grew up in California and performed as a DJ prior to attending Michigan Law.

"One goal is to get artists used to working with lawyers early on, before a crisis strikes," said Weiner, a graphic designer, videographer, and musician.

"We formed Creative Rights to provide free or low-cost legal services for artists," said Weiner, a native of Flint, Mich. "Basically, we serve as sort of general counsel for them, which gives us the opportunity to work on larger projects and solve interesting problems—all while helping small and low-income creative enterprises."

Which brings us back to the story of Weiner and Detroit's North End Studios, a low-rent gallery and performance space formerly located on East Grand Boulevard north of downtown. The building is something of a landmark in the neighborhood, thanks to the lighted, nine-story rainbow mural running down the side of the building.

"We'd been around about two-and-a-half years, at that time," said Ashley Cook, one of the artists heading up the North End Studios project. In that time, North End had built a good base of clients and artists, and its leadership was trying to figure out how to sustain the work. Weiner, hearing about their efforts during his gallery visit, said, "Perfect. I can help."

Unfortunately, after a few months' work on a business plan by Weiner and Rimando that would have filled the remaining, empty floors of North End's building with tenants, North End found out that its landlord had unexpectedly sold the building to a company that wanted to establish an urban paintball business. The artists would be forced to move.

What's worse, other legal issues were raised by threats to the high-profile rainbow mural splashed on the side of the structure.

Undaunted, Creative Rights went to work on the legal issues surrounding the move, including making sure the mural wouldn't be painted over or damaged. Finally, North End moved into its new spaces, near Grand River Avenue and I-94. Creative Rights has a presence at the new building, too, helping artists with their legal needs.

"It's a total success story," Rimando said. "North End Studios has now regrouped into a new and better space, and we negotiated their lease. It's a story of perseverance. We were like, 'Wow, I don't know how they're going to go on.' But they did, and they're better off for it."

Creative Rights itself is gaining steam, as well, Rimando and Weiner said. Part of the reason, they said, is the proximity of their alma mater.

"We were working on this project all the way through law school, so they're not surprised to hear from us" at the Law School, Weiner said. "We've been a client of the Law School's Community and Economic Development Clinic for nearly two years. We wouldn't be where we are now without them. They got us our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status."

"We can run to our former professors or the Law Library for help if we need it," Rimando said. "The Law School has been tremendously supportive."

For Rimando and Weiner, the tribulations of running a not-for-profit are challenging, but rewarding. They're actively seeking funding sources, including grants and donors, that will allow them to continue the work they love.

The bottom line is pretty simple, Rimando said.

"We love vindicating the rights of artists who've been wronged."

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