VG Bild-Kunst (Collecting Society for the Visual Arts) is a relatively new collecting society, which was founded in March of 1968 by visual artists in Frankfurt am Main as a commercial association. Following the example of musical and literary authors, visual artists also wanted to protect their copyright interests. Their starting point was the so-called droit de suite (resale right). The Copyright Act of 1965 required gallery owners and auctioneers to pay a percentage of their revenues from the resale of works of art to the authors or their heirs. This allowed artists who could sell their works only once to share in the appreciation of the art market. The new “Visual Art Society for the Administration and Exploitation of the Rights and Claims of Visual Artists” set itself the goal of enforcing and improving this regulation. Many fellow artists responded positively to a circular letter to this effect and affirmed their interest at the Conference of the Federal Association of Visual Artists held in Frankfurt in June 1971.
Those in the art trade resisted these changes, and their resistance intensified further when the Copyright Law Amendment of 1972 increased the levy payable to 5% and imposed additional stricter disclosure requirements on dealers. A few gallery owners threatened to no longer represent artists who had joined the new collecting society. Such threats persuaded some prominent members to leave. Artists such as Gerhard Richter protested against the new law for other reasons. Richter had wanted lump-sum royalties, which could have been used to promote younger colleagues as well. He was blocked by the German Copyright Act, under which only individual remunerations were allowed. The first years were lean. VG Bild-Kunst was headquartered in the apartment of Frankfurt painter and graphic artist Paul Rötger and grew but slowly. At the end of 1969, the association had just 26 members. It still had no income whatsoever, and, at the same time, there were expenses that had to be covered by credit.
Membership grew to around 2,000 in 1974 as other creators of visual art such as illustrators, photographers, graphic designers, and photo agencies also joined the society. Within VG Bild-Kunst, they founded their own professional group focused primarily on library royalties, which had been introduced two years earlier. A cooperation agreement on this issue was signed with VG Wort in 1975, and, thanks to income from library royalties, the collecting society’s strained financial situation finally improved. It was able to open offices in Munich and Frankfurt and set about representing the rights of its members vis-à-vis publishers as well.
Opponents of VG Bild-Kunst frequently accused it of inefficiency. In actual fact, of the society’s total income of DM 838,000 in 1978, most of which came from library royalties, more than DM 590,000 was spent on administrative expenses. Negative press reports resulted in slow membership growth for some time (to 2,700 by 1978 and 3,400 by 1980). At the time, the notion that collective rights management could be worthwhile was still foreign to most visual artists. They tended to view distribution of copies of their works as a form of advertising. Similar to the founding years of music collecting societies when composers feared that new fees could result in lower attendance at performances, many creators of visual art also believed that new demands for money would hinder the distribution of their works. The publishers were just as opposed to VG Bild-Kunst as the gallery owners. Nonetheless, the first cooperative agreement with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association was established in 1977. It was soon recognized that the collective management of pictorial and image rights was beneficial for both parties.
Starting in 1982, film writers and film producers were also admitted to VG Bild-Kunst, forming a third professional group within the society. Their interest arose from the rapid growth in the private use of audiocassettes and video equipment. However, new reproduction and presentation technologies expanded the exploitation spectrum of other groups of visual artists as well. Despite the broadening scope of its responsibilities, VG Bild-Kunst endeavoured to achieve a leaner organisational structure in order to reduce expenses, which were still very high. Management was consolidated and streamlined, and the majority of the society’s offices were relocated from Munich to Bonn. Gerhard Pfennig, Federal Managing Director of the Federal Association of Visual Artists (BBK), was a driving force behind this reform. He led VG Bild-Kunst with great skill and expertise as its Chief Executive Officer until the end of 2011.
The headquarters in Bonn with its staff of approximately 40 people has been located in the city's "Haus der Kulturen" (House of Cultures) since 1995. Additionally, the collecting society has an office in Berlin located in the former premises of the GDR's "Bureau for Copyright." VG Bild-Kunst works closely with the other German collecting societies. For example, it manages library royalties through a central organisation founded jointly with VG WORT and GEMA (Society for Musical Performing and Mechanical Reproduction Rights). Today, over forty years after its foundation, VG Bild-Kunst has grown to around 52,000 members. Since 1985, its members have also included set designers, costume designers and film architects.