Arts Smarts

How Robert Cumbow got the seat of honor

Published in 2007 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine — June 2007

The next time you go to a Northwest Film Forum screening, you might end up sitting on Robert Cumbow, but he doesn’t mind. In fact, he’ll be downright honored.

That’s because Washington Lawyers for the Arts put him there. To be more precise, a plaque bearing his name will be placed on a seat in the theater. 

“It’s kind of cool,” says Cumbow, 60. “I think people will see it and read it and think, ‘Who is he?’ but that’s okay.”

The organization is naming a new award for him, too. While some readers may not have heard of the intellectual property rights attorney at Graham & Dunn, plenty of artists, filmmakers and movie lovers have. In addition to having served as secretary, vice president and president of the WLA, Cumbow has spent plenty of time giving free legal advice to starving artists—through the organization’s Arts Legal Clinic—that they might not otherwise be able to afford.  In addition, he helped establish a post-production organization for Seattle’s independent filmmakers, now part of the Northwest Film Forum.

Cumbow might not have become involved with WLA if he hadn’t been an artist himself early in his career. After years of sidelining (while working as a communications manager) as a movie critic for community publications and a film writer for Seattle’s Movietone News, he turned to the organization for advice when he received a publishing contract for his first of several books, Pardon Me Roy and Other Groaners. Organization member Barbara Hoffman went over the contract with him and pointed out provisions that should be changed.  He was shocked when the publisher agreed to his demands. 

When Cumbow graduated from law school eight years later and went to work at Perkins Coie, he repaid the favor by doing pro bono work for WLA. 

One of his favorite success stories from the legal clinic involved a documentary on the cultural and commercial significance of the female breast in America, called Busting Out. He not only helped the filmmakers determine what images and music they could include under the fair-use doctrine, but he also later took them on as clients and set up a European distribution agreement. The film has been shown on Showtime.

Now that WLA has created the Robert C. Cumbow Brio Award, the honor’s namesake admits he’s thrilled and amused that his name could end up in the offices of arts attorneys throughout the state and not just on a chair at the Film Forum. 

“That’s really humbling,” he says. “For many years to come, people will be saying, ‘Who the hell was he?’”  

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