ASKED & ANSWERED: John Willems on ArtServe Michigan

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

ArtServe Michigan has launched a pro-bono/low-fee program called Lawyers for a Creative Economy (LCE) for artists and arts organizations to help advance their mission and contribute to Michigan's economy. The statewide arts advocacy organization is partnering with the Arts, Communications, Entertainment and Sports (ACES) section of the State Bar of Michigan, several major Michigan law firms, and the National Endowment for the Arts as it seeks attorneys to participate from Detroit, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. John H. Willems, a principal with the Miller Canfield Employment and Labor Group, brings to clients a track record of success in litigation and negotiations in both the public and private employment sectors. A practicing attorney for more than 30 years, Willems has also represented and counseled individuals and entities in the music, performance, film and other arts. He has also been active as a recording and performing musician and sound designer, producer, recording studio owner, and videographer.

Thorpe: What was the genesis of the LCE project?

Willems: ArtServe and ACES have worked together in the past on Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) programs. As we observed the renaissance in creative activity in the arts and technology sectors in Michigan, along with the expansion of foundation and private entrepreneurial support for these activities and the individuals and organizations that incubate them, it was evident that a legal support infrastructure is a critical foundational component for advancement of these new creative undertakings. We also understood from past experience that there are many worthy individuals and organizations unable to afford standard attorney fees but nevertheless needed good legal counsel and guidance in a lot of areas to mature. About a year ago, ArtServe decided to dedicate resources to building a program that would address those needs and joined forces with ACES attorneys to build the program framework, an effort that is now coming to fruition as we launch the program over the next few months. A significant difference between this and past VLA initiatives is that we are taking a more expansive view of what can be encompassed in "arts" activities, hence the emphasis on the "creative economy." The arts are so intertwined with technology and entrepreneurship that the boundaries of what is considered a "creative" undertaking has necessarily had to expand.

Thorpe: How do the arts intersect with commerce in Michigan?

Willems: At the beginning of 2012, ArtServe released a report, Creative State Michigan, which offered insight to this very question. The data showed that the business of creativity adds tremendous value to our economy: generating income, attracting talent and inviting the buying power of visitors and residents. For example, in 2009, the year the CREC credits as one of our state's economic low points, 211 of Michigan's arts and cultural organizations contributed nearly half a billion dollars in expenditures to Michigan economy. This same 10 percent of Michigan's 2000 total arts and culture organizations paid $152 million in salaries. And Michigan's arts and culture sector attracted more than $2 billion in tourist spending, 17 percent of all tourist dollars spent that year. From 2006-2010, the number of arts-related jobs increased by 4 percent and the number of arts-related businesses by 43 percent.

Thorpe: What was the origin of Miller Canfield's participation in the project?

Willems: Miller Canfield has a tradition of supporting pro bono programs in numerous areas. Many Miller Canfield attorneys also support the arts or are otherwise engaged with the creative sector. With the firm's support, and as an ArtServe Board member and a member and former officer of ACES, I've had the good fortune of being able to bring the firm's resources to bear on prior pro bono arts services programs. When the LCE was conceived, Miller Canfield was naturally going to be involved from the inception. Arts and all related creative endeavors are critical to both the quality of life and the cultural and economic future of Michigan.

Thorpe: Tell us about some of the other partners in the effort.

Willems: On the law side, in addition to Miller Canfield, Matt Bower of Safford & Baker, Rick Herman of Richard A. Herman PC, Joe Voss of Clark Hill in Grand Rapids, and Jeff Richardson, who recently joined Miller Canfield, have put in many hours of hard work to get the program to this point and will continue to work both in an operational and legal service provider capacity. All of these folks have been committed to building these kinds of programs for many years. In addition, we have a number of attorneys in ACES who have participated generously and given their time and effort to present at workshops and provide legal services at pro bono or reduced rates.

Thorpe: What services might an artist or creative organization expect to receive?

Willems: Services consist of providing counsel and guidance in any aspect that relates to a creative activity, short of representation in litigation. Services will focus on counseling regarding intellectual property issues, with an expanded view beyond basic copyright guidance. We'll cover other key aspects such as licensing, contract, branding, negotiations, trademarks, web-related issues, building a business, etc. Based on past experience, I expect we'll see requests for guidance on infrastructure matters such as landlord tenant issues, incorporation, operating agreements and the like.

LCE will also function as a referral service for legal needs -- such as litigation -- that go beyond the scope of what LCE can provide.

Finally, LCE will hold workshops in all the areas of interest to the creative economy, in which presenters with both legal expertise and practical experience will share knowledge and problem solving guidance. One such workshop was already held in Grand Rapids by Joe Voss of Clark Hill last month with a presentation by Brian Wassom of Honigman, in Bloomfield Hills. Another was held December 6 at D:Hive in Detroit, where Chanille Carswell of Brook Cushman, Lawrence Jordan of Jaffe Raitt, and Matt Bowers of Safford & Baker presented.

Thorpe: Is there an "expiration date" on the project or is it expected to be permanent? What might the future hold?

Willems: The launch event at Miller Canfield on Dec. 5 brought together interested attorneys and Arts organizations and provide information and engagement opportunities for lawyers. We were fortunate to have an incredible Detroit band as part of the program, Sin Hielo, who provided their unique brand of jazz and world music. After that, the LCE will continue to exist for as long as there is a need for legal guidance to support creative activities in the state.

Published: Tue, Jan 1, 2013