M. Dougenis, Poor Butterfly (1986)
(Photo credit: https://sagharborexpress.com/)
Miriam “Molly” Dougenis is an award-winning figurative artist who has been working in watercolor since the early part of her art career. Molly’s artwork has been exhibited in a number of galleries and museums such as Peter Marcelle Gallery, Gerald Peters Gallery and Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. Her work has also been exhibited in several shows and galleries in New York as well as small museums around the country.
Molly is over 90 years young and she has been very organized about her art and her estate ideas. Claude Ponsot, her Art Professor at St. Johns University, recommended that Molly start taking pictures of her work to create a record of her work, after which she numbered them in a catalog system. A long time ago she also decided to leave her estate, including her art and copyright to her works, to an animal-rights charity. Molly remembers being taken aback when her longtime dealer, more about him later, asked her to leave him her art after she dies.
This Winter, Center for Art Law (CfAL) spoke to Molly to learn more about her artwork, inspiration, estate plans and experience in a legal case she initiated against a gallery owner in the New York Supreme Court. In this interview, Molly shares some insights into artist-dealer relations from the artists’ perspective in the legal-art world.
Molly was married to an attorney, and that is why, perhaps she was not discouraged when she was unable to recover her art from a gallerist who represented her for a number of decades. She did not get even, she got a lawyer. Three in fact, to try and recover either her consigned and now missing pieces or compensation for her work (and legal fees).
This piece is an interview of Molly taken by Atreya Mathur. Answers have been written and edited by Atreya for the purpose of this article.
CfAL: What kind of artwork do you enjoy and who would you say are your inspirations in the creative process?
Molly: I am a watercolor artist and I particularly enjoy creating still life artwork. I was very influenced by the art of Charles Demuth (1883-1935), an American artist who lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and painted still lifes of subject matter gathered from his mother’s garden such as flowers, fruits and vegetables. His other subjects were buildings, lettering such as in the work, “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold.” He also did a series of sailors.
CfAL: What do you love the most about creating with watercolors?
Molly: I love how this form of artwork allows one to arrange it themselves, and change things around to suit their own artistic style. An artist has the power to change what is there to suit their own taste and desires.
CfAL: Any other artists you have drawn inspiration from?
Molly: I have also been inspired by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) an American realist painter, when painting landscapes with houses influenced by his work, and by Winslow Homer, an American landscape painter whose work is rugged and speaks to danger and death. I also find inspiration in the works of French painters, Monet (1840-1926) and Cezanne (1839-1906). My works include landscapes and seascapes as well as floral still life.
CfAL: How did you begin as an artist, what is your story?
Molly: I have always been passionate about art and creating. My first formal art classes were at Bayside High School on Long Island. I not only took the allotted one year of art but prevailed upon my Grade Advisor to allow me to take art classes for the entire four years of high school. He had suggested I take math instead. After finishing high school, since I worked at Conde Nast Publishing (Vogue, Glamour, and House & Garden), I was able to take classes at nearby Hunter College and drawing classes and watercolor as well. My drawing teacher was impressed with my drawings and strongly suggested I continue with art.
CfAL: Was this a professional course? How did you find art teachers to help you learn through your journey as an artist?
Molly: I was able to find good art teachers on my own: Ed Whitney, who taught at Pratt University in Brooklyn; Claude Ponsot, Art Professor at St. Johns University; and Paul Wood who taught art in his own private school in Port Washington, N.Y. From these three art teachers who were also artists in their own right, I learned most of what I needed to know. All three based their teachings on theory: Ed Whitney taught theory of art in general with a specialization in watercolor, Ponsot based most of his classes on good drawing and the modernists and Paul Wood on contemporary and abstract art with a grounding in art history.
As mentioned, I was inspired by Winslow Homer, and during class I would speak about him. Homer’s work was characterized by death and danger. One of the students was not fond of this type of work and did not want their artwork to speak to death or danger. I believe that even if there are certain elements that an artist does not want to cover, it is important to try to understand the artwork to let it influence one’s own work.
CfAL: Where has your work been exhibited and when did you begin showcasing your work?
Molly: I started showing my work pretty much right away as I was taking classes and heard about small shows in the area including Huntington and in Nassau County. This encouraged me to work more. My work has been exhibited at several galleries and museums such as Gerald Peters Gallery and MM Fine Art in New York. My artwork has also been showcased in small museums around the country. My first piece to be offered at auction was “Dockside” at Capsule Gallery Auction in 2021.
CfAL: What is the background of the case you filed in the New York Supreme Court?
Molly: I brought the case to court in 2018. Peter Marcelle, a gallery owner, who first had Hampton Road Gallery, Peter Marcelle Gallery, and then Peter Marcelle Project, failed to return a number of my consigned artworks. Marcelle accepted my works on consignment for various art shows and never returned the artwork. He showcased and sold my work for over 20 years. He went on to use different names for galleries and never retained the same name for any gallery for too long. Through this he was able to sell the artwork without informing me. It actually all began with my painting, “Arrangement” (as pictured above). I brought the painting to the Hampton Road Gallery and I could tell that Marcelle liked it so he immediately put it in the window. A week or so later I dropped by to find out what happened. He told me he “sent it out to be reframed” and then immediately changed the subject…and I couldn’t get him to get back to the painting. I’m still very sorry I ever brought it to the gallery in the first place…that I’d never see it again and I’ll never have the use of it as my own work, to exhibit elsewhere, sell on my own or even donate to a museum of my choice. This is the main reason I decided to go after him legally. I wanted my work back. I wasn’t interested in the money. It was the work I wanted. So I got a lawyer.
CfAL: How did you find lawyers to take on your case?
Molly: Through a fellow Hampton’s resident and an art attorney, Carol Steinberg, got in touch with Irina Tarsis, the founder of Center for Art Law. Irina has litigated similar cases on behalf of artists against galleries who did not return consigned art, in violation of New York Artist- Dealer Relationship laws, and Irina brought action on my behalf in the New York Supreme Court.
(Note: According to NYACA law, dealers must hold consigned property from artists in trust and artists, if successful in their efforts, are entitled to collect legal fees (N.Y. Arts & Cult. Aff. Law § 12.01)).
CfAL: What was the final judgment?
Molly: Together with Irina and another litigation attorney, Jordan Greenberg (of the Manhattan-based law firm of the same name), we worked for three years in the hope of getting back the artwork or receiving the income made from the sale of my work. We went to trial and the jury elected to award $27,900 for nine missing payments. The judge finally ordered that Marcelle was responsible for the theft of my artwork. A year later, in 2021, the court also ruled that Marcelle must pay for my legal fees.
(Both judgments and interest due on them still remain unpaid and the dealer is now in contempt of the court, facing risk of arrest. You can read more about the case HERE.)
CfAL: Can you describe your experience of filing a suit in court? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Molly: Going to court is not an easy task and initiating an action in court is a time-consuming process. It is especially tough for artists who put in effort in their paintings and do not get them back. Regardless of the effort required, my advice is to go after the person who has stolen an artist’s work and have them questioned and arrested. It can be an expensive process but there are plenty of ways to fund efforts with an attorney, including websites specifically designed to help artists who require money for an attorney. I believe it is important to obtain a judgment against them to ensure that appropriate legal punishment is awarded. I received advice to get word out and write an article that would bring awareness to the case. While I did write a piece, it was amidst the beginning of the Coronavirus Global Pandemic, and it did not get enough reach or attention.
It is also very likely that Marcelle and other gallery owners do this to several artists at a time, which makes it all the more pertinent to go after them. One of my friends who is a sculptor faced a similar issue when he went to pick up his work from a gallery only to find the gallery completely empty.
CfAL: What is your advice to artists who are in a similar situation?
Molly: My advice to artists is to be cautious and have them sign a consignment sheet. I had done the same when someone came to pick up my artwork. I asked for a document which they did not have. I then created this consignment sheet which worked in my favor to obtain a judgment against Marcelle. Many artists simply hand over their work, which is a dangerous thing to do. The judge in my case felt like there should be something in writing, which I fortunately had. I advise other artists to ensure that there is written proof of the work being taken and there should be documentation and contracts when required.
CfAL: Final question, what are your thoughts about estate planning and wills? Is it necessary for artists to have a will?
Molly: I believe that artists ought to have a will. My artwork, in my will, benefits a charity for small animals. I faced no challenges in the process and worked with an attorney to draft the will. Having a will makes it easier to decide what happens with an artist’s work after their death and to whom the work would belong.
It can be a difficult decision to include artwork in one’s will based on the artist itself and what an artist thinks of their artwork. There are thousands of skilled artists, some good, some world famous, some who produce quality work and other artists whose work may not be as well-known or commercially impressive. “As an artist you really have to understand that if your work is not good, no one will want it…you must make sure that you do not give your work to a cause that may not want it at all.” An artist should be careful in giving their work to those on whom it would not be a burden.
Center for Art Law would like to thank Molly for taking the time to speak with us and share her inspiration and experience to help guide other artists in similar positions.