Artist dispute smudges New York – again

Proposed restrictions have outdoor art vendors putting more passion into a decade-old fight with City Hall.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After an afternoon viewing Leonardo da Vinci, Monet, and Picasso, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art can sort through the photos of Wangmo or the acrylics of R.O. Crouch.

But the Wangmos aren't actually in the marbled-floored museum. They're outside on the concrete, not far from the hot-dog stand. At least for now.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has introduced legislation requiring Mr. Wangmo, Mr. Crouch, and others who sell art in the parks of New York to get a license, the same as the hot-dog seller. For the artists, it's as if they have just been asked to sell pretzels.

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"The bottom line is that this is not an issue about the business of selling art, but a rightful defense of the First Amendment," says Robert Lederman, president of Artists' Response to Illegal State Tactics (A.R.T.I.S.T.), a coalition of art vendors protesting such changes.

Oh no, says the city: It's a question of pedestrian safety. Indeed, it's dangerous enough trying to walk down the crowded venues, let alone dodging tables full of porcelain figurines. Plus, says the city, that pigeon-filled plaza outside of the Met is public parkland where restrictions have always been in place.

"This permitting system will allow the agency to coordinate the need for pedestrian safety and access to parks with the rights of vendors to sell written matter in parks," says Chris Osgood, a spokesman for the city's Department of Parks and Recreation.

For many New Yorkers, the argument may seem like a familiar painting. Indeed, it has been hanging over New York for nearly a decade. Yet as time wears on, both the government and artists hold to their positions only more strongly, promising to match the other side's bolder moves with greater aggression of their own.

"If this [legislation moves closer to reality], there will just be more stuff down the road that we need to defend," says Crouch.

The controversy first flared in 1993, when then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani claimed the artists were just like any other vendor. Countless pieces of artwork were confiscated and destroyed, and the police arbitrarily arrested the art sellers.

Mr. Lederman, who sells art himself – pictures of Mr. Giuliani as a Hitler-like dictator – took on the former US attorney. And he won: The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which is just below the US Supreme Court, ruled that art vendors are equally as valid as newspaper publishers.

But their battle was far from over. In 1998, Giuliani required the artists to obtain permits. This prompted a 65-day artists' protest. And once again – this year – Lederman prevailed in court.

So, the artists were amazed, perhaps even shocked, when in August, a former publisher, Mr. Bloomberg, asked a city councilman to sponsor a new law that prohibits city artists from selling art, books, newspapers, and any other form of reading or visual material in public parks without a permit or license granted by the city. Distribution of free literature and public speeches of protest on the street or within 350 feet of any New York City park would also be illegal.

Once more, the artists took to the barricades, so to speak. One day in August, 400 art vendors rallied in front of the esteemed museum. "We are protesting because it is our right. We don't need permission to speak, to work, to yell, to anything. We have the liberty to express ourselves through sculpture, pictures, photography," says Marlene Ronan, who sells miniature marble sculptures outside the Met.

The parks department contends that the opponents of the proposal have spread misleading and incorrect information. It is not trying to stifle artistic expression, the department says, but there are a growing number of art vendors – 100 in three areas of Central Park alone. It looks like some kind of bazaar, all on public land.

Thus, the department says it hopes to bring order to these heavy congregations of artistic activity. It says its aim has nothing to do with regulating the content of the artwork being sold. "New York City's parks are – and always will be – a haven for free speech," says Mr. Osgood, who says the legislation simply clarifies the city code.

The parks department has yet to establish the number of permits that would be issued and the duration of the issued permits under the new proposal.

Still, to many of the artists, the issue is a matter of survival. "If I weren't able to sell in the streets, I will have to get into construction work," says Michael Bozneak, a Polish immigrant selling handmade aluminum wire sculpture. "Construction work is very dangerous because I don't have health insurance. But selling in the streets is not dangerous, and every day I am speaking to people and improving the language."

For some, a cut in the number of art vendors would dilute the character of New York. "The type of art in display at Chelsea and SoHo galleries is different from the art sold in the streets," says Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "It's important to keep both alive."

The artists add that without those figurines, photos, and acrylics being sold outside, New York will be boring. "If you take all that off the streets," says Mark Nilsen, who has been selling his work in outside venues and galleries for the past five years, "it's just not going to be as interesting anymore."

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