A turbulent series of legal battles between street artist-vendors and the city of New York is raging. Since 2010, artists have been combatting the city’s restrictions on the number of artists selling artwork in some of New York’s most highly-populated areas. The legislation limits artist vendors to designated spots in the city on a first-come, first-served basis.
The reasoning behind it was that the concentration of vendors created congestion and violated the city’s green space. The U.S. Second Court of Appeals ruled to support the city’s right to “impose reasonable content-neutral restrictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech.”
Robert Lederman—head of the advocacy group Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics (A.R.T.I.S.T.)— filed to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the court ignored anti-artist hostility among city administration.
In September of 2013, the restriction was upheld in a federal court, spurring a group of artist- vendors to appeal to the Supreme Court. Last month, the city of New York filed a brief opposing the artists’ appeal.
Ledermanis the frontman in the artists’ lawsuit fighting the 2010 ruling. Upon and since the implementa- tion of this rule, the number of artist vendors in New York City has dropped from over 300 to just 81. There are now 18 artists in Union Square Park, five in the High Line, nine in Battery Park, and 49 in Central Park. Columbia Law Professor Rich-
ard Briffault spoke to me about the viability of Lederman’s appeal. The usual rule is that if there are legitimate reasons for a law, then that’s enough justification for it to be upheld.
However, Briffault says, “some people will argue that if those reasons are really just a façade, and the real reason was a prohibitive reason, then that should be enough to undo the law, [or] at least make them pass it again for the right reasons.”
“It’s arbitrary and capricious,” Barnard Urban Studies professor Liz Abzug says of the severely diminished number of artists in the city’s parks. Abzug believes the city is “making decisions [not] based on the rationale or the statistics to back it up. That’s the reason why they [the artists] appealed it to Supreme Court, and they should.”
Abzug says this isn’t the only incidence of unfair treatment of city art- ists. He cites the recent painting over of graffiti mecca 5Pointz as another example. “The hostility that’s exhib- ited, or the unwelcome environment, that’s just one instance of the city becoming a more unwelcome place for artists,” Abzug says.
This is an important matter—it affects the atmospheres of the areas with restrictions, and above all, the artists whose livelihoods depend on their ability to sell. Two years into the enforcement of the rule, it’s not just the limiting of spots that has been hard on artists: It’s also the first-come, first-served policy. Some reported having to arrive as early as three or four in the morning during busy seasons. Artists have argued that this system is discriminatory, placing the elderly and handicapped at a disadvantage.
“I don’t like another location,” says Yuri Bobrykov, a painter who was moved from his Union Square Park spot: “couple weeks ago, I stay in SoHo and I came early, take the place...I come and I stay and one guy [says], ‘Oh, this my place, I stay five years here.’ Ok, push. Ok another guy, another guy, you know? And push, push, push and one, two, three, four, five vendors. It’s no good for me, I don’t have a location over there.”
But even when an artist manages to secure one of the few park spots, being assigned to a specific location can still prove challenging. Elvira Kamalova and her husband sell his photographs of the city in Union Square Park. “Before, we could stay around that sculpture, Washington, and it was very good—many tourists attracted, and they come to buy some art. Now we are only allowed to be a little bit here, a little bit there, but people don’t walk there. It’s a problem.”
Kamalova has been selling art in the city for 10 years. This year, she is filing for bankruptcy. Vending is her only source of income, and she struggles to find other employment. “I cannot findanyotherjob;Iamtooold.Iam50 years and nobody can hire me.”
Since the relocation, she estimates that her income has diminished to a fourth or fifth of what it used to be.
“For the last 20 years, we have driven artists out of most of New York City because the cost of renting studio space, apartments,” Abzug says. “It is very onerous on expression, on artists that have studios, if they do, or if they have to work jobs, as many do during the day, to be able to come there and fight for exhibition space.”
She calls on the city to respond to the repercussions of its decision. “There is a middle ground. If you’re going to deny the artists that kind of space, then are you gonna provide alternatives? Yes, you can, you should. How do you do that?”
Abzug suggests alternatives such as art fairs along the peers, roving artist exhibitions, incubator buildings, and incentives for developers to provide space for artists to use.
The city could designate certain streets or sidewalks where the artists wouldn’t be in the way, or find space for them in public plazas, vacant lots, gardens, or private plazas that the building owner sets up for public use.
As litigation to repeal the 2010 restrictions does not seem to be work- ing in the artists’ favor, this question of finding alternative spaces becomes more urgent. The community is struggling, and it is important to remember that the elected officials have a duty to serve all members of the community. If this continues, the future looks grim.
Kamalova spoke with sadness as she looked around Union Square, remarking, “it was so many artists here, and they all just disappeared now.” She can only hope she won’t be next.