Chicago lawyer Scott Hodes owns a full collection of original works, prints and drawings by world-renowned artists Christo and his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, some of which adorn his corner office in the law firm of Bryan Cave, located on the 48th floor of a Loop office tower. The pieces show views of every Christo and Jeanne-Claude project Hodes worked on, the monumental buildings the artists have wrapped in fabric, the expansive installations they’ve staged on land or at sea. “The works of art have a special meaning for me because most collectors don’t have a relationship with the artists hanging on their walls,” says the 67-year-old attorney, who has known the duo for more than four decades.
Hodes — a corporate lawyer who has also gained a national reputation for art law — isn’t just Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s friend. He has been the self-described “quarterback” of the artists’ legal team since 1969 when, early in their career, they wrapped Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The bond has continued through this past year with The Gates, the biggest public-art project ever mounted in New York City: a 16-day installation in February of 7,500 16-foot-high gates festooned with saffron-colored fabric panels that lined 23 miles of pedestrian paths in Central Park. The $21 million undertaking was the Christos’ first for their adopted city.
In between, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have created such gorgeously grandiose — and often controversial — temporary projects as swaddling 11 islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay with flamingo-pink fabric, wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris, and deploying thousands of giant umbrellas simultaneously in southern California and rural Japan.
“Christo always calls Scott our brother,” says Jeanne-Claude, who has collaborated with her Bulgarian-born husband on every one of their works but only formally began adding her name in 1995 with the Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin. “He gives us a lot of his time. He not only makes contracts for each project, he’s also our adviser.”
Hodes’ duties for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, both 69, typically include collaborating — and sometimes wrangling — with government bodies, civic groups and landowners. He registers copyrights and trademarks for each work and ensures that they’re protected. He helps evaluate employment requirements — The Gates involved some 1,400 paid workers. He assists in drafting contracts with matériel suppliers. He deals with insurance, security and tax issues. But he doesn’t always work alone. Hodes says he gets a lot of help from his fellow attorneys at Bryan Cave.
Yet, says Hodes, “Every project has its own little problems.” He recalls the time in 1983 when he faced off in Florida court with a phalanx of attorneys representing environmental groups; they feared that the island-wrapping venture would suffocate protected manatees (the solution: 24-hour boat patrols). Despite such maneuvers, Hodes says his past work for the artists hasn’t been “anywhere near as sophisticated and complicated as what I’m doing today.” He adds, “As Christo has developed and created larger projects, the lawyering has expanded exponentially and become more challenging, more all-encompassing.”
Hodes grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the son of Barnet Hodes, the city’s longest-serving corporation counsel under Mayor Edward Kelly (1935-47) and an avid collector of surrealist art, like the works of Rene Magritte. After earning his degree from the University of Michigan Law School and his LLM from Northwestern, Scott joined his father’s firm, Arvey Hodes, in the early 1960s following his service in the Army JAG Corps. He met the Christos at a New York dinner party in 1964, the year the artists — who’d yet to tackle huge wrappings — moved to the U.S. from Paris. Hodes’ occasional legal work for the couple soon evolved into a close business and personal relationship.
Along with his corporate practice — mergers and acquisitions, public offerings and financing — Hodes is one of the country’s foremost authorities on artists’ rights, occasionally advising such blue-chip figures as James Rosenquist, Armand Arman, Victor Vasarely and Richard Hunt. In 1972 he co-founded Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a 250-attorney organization that offers pro bono services for Chicago artists. “I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to see artists’ legal problems up close,” says Hodes, who recently stepped down as the nonprofit’s president. “I’m very interested as a lawyer in making a cultural contribution.”
That he has done. Since the late 1990s, Hodes has led a single-handed crusade against Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, filing a series of lawsuits that have spurred reforms in the agency’s Public Art Program by making it more “transparent” to the public — and artists. One of his major goals is to get the city of Chicago to hire more local artists for their public art projects. “It’s been incredibly time-consuming trying to do something for the Chicago art community,” he says. “But otherwise, great artists may become frustrated and leave the city.”
When Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted to drape a huge “curtain” across a Colorado mountain gap in the early 1970s, Hodes hit on the idea of incorporating the venture, mainly because it would insulate the duo from financial liability. He’s been doing it ever since, although The Gates was funded through the artists’ own CVJ Corporation. “It was the first time any artist had ever done that,” Hodes asserts. “Doing business in corporate form puts an immunity blanket on them just in case something goes wrong.”
And things have gone wrong. Most tragically, in 1991, the Umbrellas caused two deaths: a woman in California was struck by a falling umbrella in a windstorm, and a worker in Japan was electrocuted while dismantling one of the structures. The Christos later dedicated the book on the project to the woman’s memory.
Hodes says he only litigates when he’s “sure of winning.” When sellers profited from the Umbrellas project, he successfully sued one California company selling unauthorized T-shirts bearing photos of the project. The Christos donated the settlement to an art foundation.
Jeanne-Claude tells of another time when her partner wanted to take legal action. “Scott said, ‘Okay, Christo, fine. But tell me, do you want to go into the suing business or do you want to be in the business of creating art?’”