An Artist Is Suing the Museum of Sex For Using Their Image Without Consent

"They’re building their brand on my face," said Julia Sinelnikova, who is seeking $275,000 in compensation.

Artist Julia Sinelnikova has filed a lawsuit against the Museum of Sex for allegedly using a photograph of them kissing their ex-girlfriend in marketing materials without permission. Photo courtesy of Julia Sinelnikova.

Julia Sinelnikova, a sculptor and model known for their steel and acrylic installations, has filed a lawsuit against the Museum of Sex for allegedly using a photograph of them kissing their ex-girlfriend in marketing materials without their permission. Sinelnikova, who uses they/them pronouns, is seeking $275,000 in compensation.

Sinelnikova said in their lawsuit that they were casually dating Cornelia Singer, an employee of the Museum of Sex, in September 2019 when they went to visit her at work. According to them, the then-couple kissed just as a photoshoot was taking place in the museum’s Superfunland exhibition. A photographer snapped the picture, and the museum has since used it in advertising.

“This really affects my employment opportunities to have my face plastered in a lesbian kiss on subway trains. Even though I’m an out queer person, it’s not the way you want your face shown to the world,” Sinelnikova said in a phone interview. “Some of those posters never come down.”

Sinelnikova likened the incident behind the picture to walking down the street and having your picture appear as an advertisement for Coca-Cola. The Museum of Sex had hired at least 11 models for the photoshoot, but Sinelnikova made it clear that they were not one of hires and were never asked to be a part of the shoot. They also never signed a model release form granting permission for the image, taken on the sidelines of the photoshoot.

A femme person sits in front of an advertisment for the Museum of Sex showing two femme people kissing.

The Museum of Sex advertisement is seen on a subway train in New York City. Photo courtesy of Julia Sinelnikova.

Sinelnikova wasn’t aware that the museum intended to use the photo until the artist received a model release form to sign months later, when it had already reached a deal with the Metropolitan Transit Authority to run the image on video panels on bus subway shelter advertisements in 2019 and 2020.

Eventually, the artist let it slide as the pandemic hit and years passed, thinking it was over. Sinelnikova even made a post on Instagram where they took credit for picture. The artist had captioned the post: “Me and @furby_queen for a video ad campaign by @museumofsex out in nyc subways and streets now, as well as in the museum! Teehee.” The Museum of Sex has pointed to that Instagram post in its defense.

“I took credit because I was being ripped off,” the artist said. “The Instagram post that their lawyer tries to smear me with contained an image of the kiss displayed inside the museum in fall 2019. I say smear because he implies I consented to mass marketing by posting this to Instagram.”

Then, in 2023, Sinelnikova said they heard from friends that their face was again plastered all over the subway. The artist called Outfront Media, the company that handles advertising for the MTA, and learned that more than 1,000 subway ads had been printed.

In the lawsuit, the artist said “millions of New Yorkers” could have seen the picture by now. Ultimately, they contacted the Museum of Sex and sought compensation, but the parties failed to reach a deal. Through their lawyer, Sinelnikova initially sought $25,000 in compensation, a standard rate for models for a large multi-year advertising campaign and worth about 500 tickets to the museum. Their lawyer even dropped the amount to $19,000 during negotiations.

“I declined to accept $2,000, which is an insult,” Sinelnikova said. “I was threatened with a defamation suit if I spoke out about this matter.”

Dan Gluck, the museum’s director, purportedly acknowledged that the picture was used without permission in emails to Sinelnikova, reviewed by Artnet News. “My apologies for the unauthorized use of you[r] image I am dumbfounded no one got your permission at the time,” his email read. But Sinelnikova alleged that the museum continues to use the photo and blasted Gluck for sounding “very condescending” in his emails, “using abbreviations like ‘btw’ as if I’m a middle school girl.”

Sinelnikova discussed the controversy in a post on Instagram in January, urging their supporters to contact the museum on their behalf. “Today, I am amazed to see it has been reprinted all over New York City,” they said. “Considering tickets are $36–48 and the museum just opened a project in Miami, I am hoping that my artistic contributions, self-styled, will be recognized.”

Singer is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Sinelnikova said they feel exploited by Singer and the museum, but “really don’t wish her any harm.”

But as for the museum, “they’re building their brand on my face,” Sinelnikova said. “When I asked them to compensate me fairly, they said they were too swamped with expenses for the new building, but now they’re paying for a lawyer to put me down.”

In an emailed statement, the Museum of Sex responded to the lawsuit by pointing to a 2019 post on Instagram that Sinelnikova had made, which

“Ms. Sinelnikova participated in an official campaign shoot for the Museum of Sex in November 2019, along with several other artists and models. Ms. Sinelnikova was aware it was a professional shoot, as well as what the images from it would be used for, and promoted such on her own social media channels,” the Museum of Sex statement reads. “Unfortunately, the team that managed the shoot did not get a release from her, which the Museum of Sex was not aware of until Ms. Sinelnikova contacted them in January of 2024 asking for compensation.”

The Museum of Sex said it apologized for the oversight and offered to compensate Sinelnikova immediately with $2,000, “as per the maximum amount the state sets damages at” and an amount it claims was far above what any other participating artist was paid.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics