Artist Sues Museum of Sex for Using Their Image

An artist and model is suing New York’s Museum of Sex (MoSex) for $275,000, accusing the institution of using their image without their permission in a citywide marketing campaign.

Julia Sinelnikova, who uses they/them pronouns, was nearly finished installing a city-commissioned outdoor sculpture in Corona, Queens, late last year when they began receiving text messages about an advertisement plastered on the subway. 

The ad featured them provocatively kissing a young woman bathed in soft magenta light while seated in front of a roulette wheel framed by the words “MUSEUM OF SEX.” Some messages were from acquaintances, but dozens came from strangers sent through their Instagram and other social media accounts. 

“It felt really violating,” Sinelnikova told Hyperallergic. “I felt like I’m being seen as someone associated with the Museum of Sex and it’s tarnishing my image. It’s not helpful for my position in the art world.”

Sinelnikova recognized the image. A MoSex front desk attendant they were dating at the time invited them to an event on September 27, 2019, celebrating the exhibition, Superfunland: Journey into the Erotic Carnival, an interactive display exploring the origins of carnivals through world history. Sinelnikova took selfies in the lobby and posed for several shots against the provocatively lit backdrop.

But neither the photographer the museum hired nor museum staff distributed a consent form or discussed any compensation for participating, Sineknikova claims. 

When the exhibition opened in October 2019, a digital ad with the image appeared on a Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) bus shelter. By November, Sinelnikova received an email from the museum with a model release form and no other message. They didn’t sign it because they thought it would be a temporary exhibition and there was no mention of any payment.

MoSex reopened in August 2020 after a pandemic-related closure, but it wasn’t until late last year that the museum launched a new marketing campaign with Sinelnikova’s image in subways and video screens greeting museumgoers at its Flatiron location. The image was also featured on the online ticket page of the MoSex website.

On January 15, Sinelnikova emailed MoSex founder and Executive Director Daniel Gluck requesting a $25,000 fee for including their image across its platforms. Gluck replied he was “dumbfounded” no one sought permission and apologized for the “unauthorized use of your image,” according to a court summons and emails provided by Sinelnikova. He offered to pay “ideally something less than $2,000,” claiming that $25,000 was “way too much for us right now.”

“There has been a major slump in ticket sales over the last month [and] we hear all over the city at other institutions as well; sadly this campaign has not made a difference in the positive to us,” Gluck wrote. Admission to the museum starts at $36 and premium tickets cost as much as $50.

Sinelnikova replied that the offer was “unfair.” Gluck wrote back accusing Sinelnikova of “threatening to publicly defame” the museum and called their request “exorbitant.” Two days later, in response to posts about the situation that Sinelnikova had made on social media, an attorney for the museum sent the artist a letter with the $2,000 offer and demanding that they “cease and desist your posting of defamatory comments on social media or elsewhere” or face legal action.

The digital ad playing in the Museum of Sex lobby

In a statement to Hyperallergic, Stephanie Stein, MoSex vice president of marketing, said Sinelnikova and their legal team “are being defamatory and extortionary.” Stein added that the museum asked the MTA to remove any ads with Sinelnikova’s image and that their offer was the maximum amount the state sets for damages, a rate “far above what any other participating artist was paid.”

The museum also refutes the characterization of the event as a preview for the show, characterizing it as “an actual photoshoot” for the Superfunland campaign. MoSex’s official response to the summons is due March 17.

The Museum of Sex, which opened in 2002, is a relative newcomer to the city’s cultural community. Gluck, its founder, wanted the museum to serve as a catchall for exploring the history of sexuality as Americans began re-examining gender identity and as tolerance for LGBTQ+ individuals was growing.

The institution is unafraid to grapple with taboo subject matter, from kink design objects to obscenity in art, and was the first museum to showcase sexually charged works by outsider artists. Its curators also knew how to have cheeky fun by recreating a 1970s-era disco bar and letting artists design cocktails.

But there were financial challenges, too. Two patrons sued the museum for injuries suffered in separate interactive exhibits from jumping onto an inflatable bouncy house of breasts and falling off a mechanical bull-like sex machine. (The former suit was settled in 2020, the latter is ongoing.) Gluck also acknowledged in an email to Sinelnikova that the museum took on debt following its long-planned expansion in Miami.

At the same time, questions over its work culture arose when a gallery attendant claimed that she endured “constant and persistent sexual harassment” in a since-settled 2019 lawsuit. Tour guides repeatedly requested higher-ups find better ways to report incidents to security and refuse to admit intoxicated customers but were told by management that it was the “nature of the establishment,” according to the suit. A MoSex spokesperson called the suit “meritless.”

The museum’s disagreement with Sinelnikova could soon head to court, too. On February 4, Sinelnikova filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court requesting $25,000 in compensation, $250,000 in punitive damages, and an injunction preventing the museum from distributing their images.

Sinelnikova’s attorney, Andrew Muchmore, argued that the $2,000 initially offered by the museum is only a floor on damages and that the value of licensing his client’s image is closer to the $25,000 they’re demanding.

“We have them dead to rights and it’s just a question of valuation,” he told Hyperallergic. “I would think this would be common sense even without a statute, but sometimes people play fast and loose. I want to get her a square deal but by the time they do it might be too little too late.”

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