Finance Bros Battle Sculptor for Control of Iconic ‘Fearless Girl’ Statue
Artist Kristen Visbal says she’s being bullied by an investment firm with a spotty record on gender issues.
When Kristen Visbal, an award-winning artist based in Lewes, Delaware, accepted what she calls an “embarrassingly low” fee to sculpt a girl out of bronze in 2016, she reminded herself it was for a good cause: the promotion of gender equality on International Women’s Day. It helped that the location—the center of New York City’s Financial District, across from the famed Charging Bull statue—would be the biggest platform of her career.
She had no idea that the 4-foot statue would become Fearless Girl, an international symbol of gender equality. Nor could she have imagined what would follow—a bruising legal battle over how she could sell, donate, or even talk about the work. Her rival for custody of the girl-power iconography: a trillion-dollar investment firm with a spotty record on gender issues.
"I just want my freedom back and my independence back,” Visbal told The Daily Beast in an interview. “And I want to be able to move forward with the work that I created on behalf of women, to benefit women.”
Visbal’s now-iconic statue only narrowly avoided life as a fearless cow. Years ago, creatives at the venerable New York marketing agency McCann dreamed up the stunt of erecting a female counterpart to Charging Bull. But the firm soon realized that a female bull would simply be a cow—not the most flattering metaphor for female empowerment.
According to a 2018 interview with McCann executive Rob Reilly, the company shopped the idea of a girl statue to several companies, including Microsoft, before circling back to State Street Global Advisors, the fifth-largest asset management company in the world. State Street had recently started the SHE Fund, an investment portfolio focused on gender-diverse companies, and unveiling the Fearless Girl statue on International Women’s Day would make the perfect promotion.
Meanwhile, a representative for McCann reached out to Visbal. One of the few American experts in lost-wax casting—a 6,000-year-old art form that involves a two-mold, 10-step process—Visbal had created a similar work, Girl Chasing Butterflies, for Merrill Lynch’s corporate headquarters during Women’s History Month years earlier.
Together, Visbal and McCann visualized how this new bronze girl would look: hands on her hips in a Wonder Woman pose; high-tops on her feet for a modern look; a strong but not angry look on her face. Visbal, who will not disclose exactly how much she was paid, says she knew little about the company backing her work.
Unveiled on the eve of International Women’s Day 2017, Fearless Girl quickly became a sensation, generating more than 10 billion social, print and digital media impressions, according to State Street. Politicians, celebrities and tourists flocked to take selfies with the statue, and someone topped it with a Women’s March pink pussy hat. A petition asking the city to make the statue a permanent feature garnered more than 40,000 signatures.
But Fearless Girl also stirred controversy after it was revealed to be the project of a massive financial company, not the work of a rogue, impassioned artist. (“Too Bad That Statue of a Girl Staring Down the Wall Street Bull Is a PR Stunt by Wall Street Patriarchs,” a Village Voice headline blared.)
The critics included the sculptor of Charging Bull, Arturo Di Modica, who deemed the statue an “advertising trick” and threatened to sue to have it taken down. Fellow artist Alex Gardega briefly erected a small sculpture of a pug peeing on Fearless Girl’s leg in protest of “corporate nonsense.”
The Di Modica backlash gave State Street the perfect opportunity to step in and present itself as the defender of a female artist. Executive Vice President Lynn Blake told The Atlantic she was not surprised by the criticism, and that the company “absolutely took a risk to do this.” Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio weighed in, tweeting that “men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.”
State Street eventually agreed to move the statute to a permanent home outside of the New York Stock Exchange, but left a plaque where she used to stand.
“Fearless Girl is on the move to the New York Stock Exchange,” it read. “Until she’s there, stand in her place.”
Today, State Street’s girl-power posturing makes Visbal scoff. Ever since the firm put up the statue, she says, they’ve been keeping her from using it for its intended purpose: promoting the equality of women and girls. Because of an agreement she signed with State Street just after the unveiling, Visbal says, she cannot sell, donate or talk about her most famous work without fear of legal repercussions.
“I was willing to enter into an agreement with them under the impression that we would be moving forward together in regards to diversity,” she said. Now, she added, “I cannot use my work on behalf of women because they are preventing it.”
In a statement, State Street said Fearless Girl was “created for the purpose of raising awareness of State Street Global Advisors’ commitment to women in leadership and responsible investing.” The company, they said, has “invested significantly in Fearless Girl and continues to do so, including by protecting its intellectual property rights in the statue itself and in the name.”
The standoff between artist and investor started just days after the statue was erected, when Visbal went to apply for a copyright and trademark. The copyright went through seamlessly, she says, but the trademark application was stalled. State Street had applied for one on the name Fearless Girl the day before.
From there, Visbal says, the company used its formidable wealth and legal resources to pressure her into a contract giving it a limited license on the copyright. She retained the right to sell the work in limited circumstances, but could not use it to promote corporate diversity, diversity in the boardroom, or other SHE Fund objectives. She also could not use it in service of political purposes or another company’s brand. If she wanted to donate replicas to nonprofit organizations, State Street had to approve.
A State Street representative said the contract was “fair and equitable” but declined to comment further. In legal filings, the company claims that both parties were represented by independent legal counsel throughout the negotiations and had adequate opportunity to review the terms.
Regardless, Visbal says she never would have entered into the deal if she had known the company’s track record on gender diversity. In October 2017, seven months after Fearless Girl met the public, the Department of Labor announced the results of a five-year investigation determining State Street had routinely paid women employees less than men in the same positions. The company disputed the findings, but agreed to pay $5 million to its 305 top female employees.
Even the company’s SHE Fund, which it created to invest in gender-diverse companies, voted against gender-equality initiatives more often than it supported them, according to investment research firm Morningstar. Of 10 gender-diversity resolutions facing its portfolio companies between 2015 and 2018, SHE voted in favor only twice. Two other, similar gender-focused funds voted for such proposals every time.
Meanwhile, the firm has been reaping the benefits of its association with Fearless Girl. The company’s Twitter and Facebook banners are both photos of the statue, and the image features prominently on its website. Apex Marketing estimates the artwork earned State Street $7.4 million in free media within two months of the unveiling. In legal filings, State Street describes Fearless Girl as “the visual representation of the company’s commitment to asset stewardship.”
Visbal is adamant that this is not how she wanted Fearless Girl used. “I did not make this work as a brand work for State Street,” she said. “I was requested to make this as a work for International Women’s Day and I made it for the women of the world.”
When the artist tried to promote Fearless Girl elsewhere, State Street blocked her. She asked to use a replica to promote Plan International’s Day of the Girl, she says, but was refused. (The humanitarian organization later disinvited her from speaking at its international summit after learning about State Street’s history of pay discrimination.) According to legal filings, the company also barred her from using a replica to benefit the women’s health nonprofit Bright Pink. When State Street refused her request to bring a replica to the 2019 Los Angeles Women’s March, Visbal says, she was so fed up she brought one anyway.
State Street has also tried to limit where Visbal can sell replications of the statue. Currently, she sells miniature replicas on her website for $6,650—an arrangement the company has started balking at, claiming it does not allow for appropriate screening of buyers. But when she attempted to sell a full-size replica to a social justice law firm in Australia, State Street sued the firm, claiming it presented a conflict of interest. Afterward, a private German buyer called off a sale with Visbal, writing, “[t]he city of Frankfurt does not want to be part of the in-fighting between you and State Street.”
In February, State Street sued Visbal for breach of their agreement, citing these incidents and others. The company claims Visbal repeatedly withheld the identity of her buyers and the timing of her promotional events so they could not stop the sales, causing “irreparable damage” to its reputation.
In the Australian sale, they say, Visbal knowingly tried to thwart the agreement by presenting the law firm as a social justice organization and excluding the fact that two financial companies that had signed on as co-sponsors. Emails obtained by the company show she asked for the law firm to sign onto the payment check in lieu of the two financial companies, citing her agreement with State Street.
In the German sale, and in a sale to the Grand Hotel in Oslo, Norway, State Street says, she refused to divulge the identity of her buyers, provide information about their use, or confirm whether the display would give State Street credit. Her automated online sales system once resulted in a miniature replica being sold to a representative for the Edward Jones financial institution and used at a corporate-sponsored event, which State Street says is a violation of the agreement.
“Visbal is weakening and adulterating the Fearless Girl message by selling unauthorized copies of the Fearless Girl statue for profit in material breach of several agreements she entered into with SSGA,” the company said in a complaint. “Her unauthorized buyers misuse the Fearless Girl image and SSGA’s Fearless Girl trademark to promote their own companies and for their own corporate purposes.”
A company representative declined to comment further on the ongoing litigation.
Visbal’s lawyer, a seasoned mediation and arbitration attorney named Mickey Mills, thinks the company’s complaints are a smoke screen. He believes State Street is trying to exploit the vague wording of the agreement to bully the artist into handing over the entire copyright. He also freely admits she should never have signed it in the first place, and doubts she will ever fully get out of it. But he speaks of his client with a biblical reference; as a David going after State Street’s Goliath.
“This lawsuit is filed for one reason and one reason only: to use their $2.8 trillion to make her give them the copyright,” he said. “Because as long as she owns the copyright she can go out there and she can be a champion for women and that takes away from the credibility of State Street to sell their SHE fund.”
“But they didn’t know she was going to meet me,” he added. “And they didn’t know I’m going to stick with her to the end.”
That loyalty doesn’t come free. While Mills is trying to keep his fees low—paying for his own hotels and meals while traveling—his services still cost Visbal $100,000 a month. When the case enters the discovery phase, Mills said, the costs will easily exceed $300,000. State Street, meanwhile, has hired one of the top intellectual property firms in the country. Mills believes they are pushing for litigation, instead of a compromise, to drag out the process and bleed Visbal dry. If the case goes before a jury, he estimates it will cost more than $1 million.
Visbal says there is no way she will be able to cover the cost of this legal fight alone. She acknowledges that she has profited off of Fearless Girl—through speaker’s fees, sales of her replicas, and a higher profile—but says most of that has gone toward covering her legal expenses. She started a renovation of her condo soon after the statute was erected, but now lives alongside discarded 2-by-4s, unable to finish it.
“Since State Street was involved in this project, I have had nothing but legal bills,” she said. “I made the work for next to nothing. I’m fighting on behalf of being able to use it for the world. Am I really expected to come up with 2 million bucks?”
To cover her legal expenses, Visbal recently started a GoFundMe and hired a digital consultancy, Campfire Group, to help promote it. They’re calling her campaign, “I Stand Fearless.”