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The art of finding art for TV shows

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Where do set decorators get the art featured on TV shows? Collin Friesen tells us about that —and the lawsuit that made it lucrative for artists.

Have you ever been watching your favorite TV show and suddenly notice the painting hanging in the suspect’s home, and you think, "Huh, pretty good taste for a serial killer, I wonder where that came from?"

It happens more than you think, and thanks to Hollywood’s fear of lawsuits, artists and galleries are starting to cash in.

“Every week we have a police station, morgue, no art there…”

Set Decorator KC Fox is walking the set of "Criminal Minds." Near the back there’s a massive wall covered in art — hundreds of paintings and photos her team will use to decorate the show’s fake offices and homes this season.  All of it cleared for use on the show.

(Every piece of art you can see on the wall in "Criminal Minds," like the artwork circled in this screenshot, has been cleared for use on TV.)

“You used to be able to go to thrift stores, get paint by numbers or macaroni art,” says the industry veteran. “Now unless I know the provenance, I can’t use it.”

What changed the way Fox and others had to do their jobs was a movie called "The Devil’s Advocate." The story goes that the people behind that film wanted to use a big bas-relief sculpture for Satan’s office. The artist said no, so the studio just went out and made one — which the artist said was a little too similar to his. Cue the lawyers.

There are rumors of a million-dollar settlement, but what for sure happened was a newfound insistence that everything you see on TV or in the movies be cleared, licensed and not sueable-over.

“If it’s on TV or the theater or possibly your phone, someone’s looking for it… and lawyers are after their clients' share,” says Fox.

Valda Lake runs the Wallspace gallery on La Brea. She estimates one-third of her business is renting or selling to Hollywood productions and commercials, which in turn leads to viewers tracking down her and the artists she represents.

“One man from the TV show 'Mad Men,' he had tracked down the artist, he was calling, emailing all the way from Germany,” says Lake. “It’s smart of an artist to think of this as a business, make the work work for you.”

One of her artists, who goes by "Muncho 1929," has sold or rented to so many shows and commercials it’s tough for him to remember. “For me, as an artist, I like ... more people to see my work, other than a gallery or even a mural on the street.”

When asked if he’s ever had any second thoughts about being on TV, he says he trusts his gallery will never put his work on a show that goes against his beliefs.

Galleries normally take around half of the sale price of an artwork. With rentals, the split can go as high as 75/25, with the gallery taking the big share. There’s also a market for kids art — some of which is done by children, but a lot is cut and glued together by enterprising adults.

It can all make for some strange bedfellows. According to the Set Dresser’s Society, what’s the number one show that has people emailing wondering where they can buy the art they see? 

"Two and a Half Men."

(Art is featured prominently in many scenes in "Two and a Half Men")

Fox says she has been turned down by some who feel TV would be beneath them, including her artist neighbor. But for more and more artists who have grown up seeing their screens as just as valid as any gallery wall, it’s an opportunity too good — and lucrative — to pass up.

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