Art Law Report

Artist Adriana Varella Demands that the City of Palo Alto Halt its Plans to Remove Her Renowned Work "Digital DNA"

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on February 1, 2018 at 4:03 AM

Sullivan & Worcester LLP has taken action on behalf of its client, artist Adriana Varella, to protect her sculpture Digital DNA from removal and destruction by the City of Palo Alto, California.  Digital DNA has stood in the heart of Palo Alto for nearly 15 years, and is widely beloved by the community.  In that time it has been recognized for its compelling message about the effect of technology on society.

Partner Nicholas M. O’Donnell, attorney for Varella, said “Digital DNA is a work of recognized stature.  Ms. Varella is entitled to protect the integrity of her work through the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA).  On her behalf we have demanded that Palo Alto immediately cease all plans to remove Digital DNA from where it belongs—in the heart of Palo Alto.  We are prepared to protect her legal rights.”

For her part, Varella said, “I am saddened by Palo Alto’s decision to threaten the removal of my work, as it has brought both joy and an opportunity for reflection to the community.  I am hopeful that they will revisit this decision before it is too late.”


Digital DNA was commissioned in 2003 by the City of Palo Alto and addresses complicated themes of technology and public space in Silicon Valley.  Since its installation it has become a beloved landmark in Palo Alto.  Digital DNA has become a magnet for visitors and photographers alike.

The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) protects the moral right of artists in America.  It contains two core provisions, what are known as the “right of attribution” and the “right of integrity.”  The latter is implicated by the City of Palo Alto’s intention to remove Digital DNA because VARA gives Ms. Varella the right:
(A) to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and
(B) to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.

Digital DNA’s meaning and commentary on the impact of technology cannot be conveyed anywhere else.  To move it would be to distort and modify its meaning.  As a result, removing the sculpture injures Ms. Varella’s reputation by eliminating an important and meaningful public display with which she is associated.  Moreover, because Digital DNA is a work of recognized stature, it cannot be destroyed without the artist’s permission.  The proposed removal also conflicts with the city’s stated policies on the removal of art from public collections.  

Topics: Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, VARA, Digital DNA, Adriana Varella, Palo Alto

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About the Blog

The Art Law Report provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the museum and visual arts communities. It is authored by Nicholas M. O'Donnell, partner in our Art & Museum Law Practice.

The material on this site is for general information only and is not legal advice. No liability is accepted for any loss or damage which may result from reliance on it. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.

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