Artists Paint Bad Picture of Proposed Park Rules

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Touching off another First Amendment fight with New York’s street artists, the city has proposed a stricter permit system governing where art can be sold in some public parks.

In crowded vending hotspots in Manhattan, including Columbus Circle and Central Park South, the Parks Department wants art vendors to set up shop only in designated areas.

Under the new regulations, vendors who sell what the department calls “expressive matter”—any kind of visual art, newspapers, books or writing—would only be permitted to do so in a predetermined place denoted with a numbered department decal. The artist who claims the spot first gets to set up shop.

Artist and vendor J. Alison Powell sells her paintings at Columbus Circle. Photos by Andrew Schwartz

On Columbus Circle, there would be spots for four vendors—two near Central Park West and two near Central Park South. Five vendors would be allowed to set up shop along Central Park South. Other parks affected by the regulation include Union Square Park, the High Line in Chelsea, Battery Park and most of Fifth Avenue near Central Park. In other, less crowded areas of Central Park, vendors can sell art under regular guidelines.

Since the Giuliani administration, artists have fought for the right to vend where they want, as long they follow rules that include keeping walkways and sidewalks clear, and having a properly sized table. Naturally, this group is again pushing back against the proposed regulations.

“We won’t be leaving the park this time. I got lawyers lined up working on this lawsuit,” said Robert Lederman, president of ARTIST, an advocacy group. “It’s not going to get the artists out of the park.”

Lederman, who has been arrested dozens of times for protesting regulations, successfully sued Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 2001 on First Amendment grounds, ending a rule that required artists to get permits.

“What I’m saying here is that Mike Bloomberg and [Parks Commissioner] Adrian Benepe, they either have to stop pretending to be art patrons or stop trying to trash street artists’ First Amendment rights,” Lederman said.

The department and Central Park Conservancy, however, argue that artists are crowding out parkgoers, blocking benches and entrances, and obstructing views.

“Over the last few years, the number [of art vendors] has increased dramatically,” said Doug Blonsky, the conservancy’s president. “The areas they concentrate at have been getting unbelievable congestion.”

Blonsky said that pedestrians have complained—though the department did not provide any details about how many complaints it has received—about park crowding, and that the proposed rule will clear up space.

“It’s not about getting rid of them, but creating a reasonable number,” he said.

Later this month, the department will take public comments and hold meetings to get community feedback before moving forward with the proposal.

J. Alison Powell, a painter whose main source of income is selling her art, was one of the few vendors at Columbus Circle on a bustling, sunny Friday afternoon. Powell, who stationed her table near the curb, worried that a scant number of spots could force her out of well-trafficked tourist areas.

“It definitely would take away from myself and two children,” said Powell, a widow and single mother. “It’s hard enough as it is.”

Instead of limiting space, Powell believes artists should have a large swath of space to sell their work, which adds to the city’s allure.

“It’s what makes New York attractive to people. It draws people to the stores,” she said.

Other artist vendors argue that if the department were truly concerned with park crowding, officials would enforce existing laws designed to keep entrances, benches, statues and trees clear of art.

One such artist is Mitchell Balmuth, a political button vendor stationed near the Metropolitan Museum of Art who was a plaintiff in Lederman’s 2001 lawsuit against the city. He believes that the fewer “expressive matter” vendors, the more space the department will have for concessions with lucrative contracts, such as holiday markets.

“We are competition for their concessions,” said Balmuth, who said he will risk arrest before obeying the new rules.

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  • samkatz

    The problem is not the artists, it’s the people who are selling illegally reproduced materials. I’ve lived at Columbus Circle for 25 years and there are precious few actual artists there. Most of the sellers all around the park are hawking the same illegally reproduced, copyright infringed, cheaply photocopied reproductions of magazine covers, 9/11 paintings, greeting cards, movie posters, film stills, and other mass produced materials that are being ripped off from the original designers and artists. The problem with Robert Lederman and his group is that they do not fight for bona fide artists. The City needs to take a stand and monitor who is selling what and hold the copyright infringers accountable. If that isn’t done, this issue will never be settled.

  • robertlederman

    Robert Lederman responds:

    Mr. Katz surely knows better than what he wrote.

    The ARTIST group represents hundreds of genuine artists who sell on the streets and in Parks. Under the First Amendment, anyone selling “art” is protected, not just the actual artists. NYC law protects legitimate art vendors equally with artists, that is why there are also many art vendors legally selling on the streets.

    The city defines “art” as paintings, prints, photos, sculptures, videos, CDs and DVDs.

    The ARTIST group does NOT defend anyone selling copyright infringed material.

    The NYPD and other city agencies could enforce the copyright laws if they chose to do so. That they do not cannot be blamed on the ARTIST group. We are a First Amendment advocacy group, not an arm of police enforcement.

    We recommend to anyone whose visual work is being illegally sold by someone without authorization on the street or in a park to document the sales and sue, as a number of artists have already successfully done.

    Blaming all street artists for the misdeeds of some is a form of small-minded prejudice.

  • robertlederman

    Robert Lederman responds:

    Mr Katz knows better.
    ARTIST advocates for artists who are protected by the First Amendment. Under NYC law, that protection extends to anyone selling art, not just artists. Therefore, art vendors are as protected as artists, the same way a book vendor who did not write the book they sell, is as protected as the author. ARTIST does not defend those who sell copyright infringed art. The NYPD could do such enforcement if it chose to. ARTIST is not a police organization and we do not engage in vending enforcement. We do recommend that anyone whose art was infringed document the selling of it and sue, as a number of artists have successfully done. It is a shame that someone like Mr Katz who knows better would spread such utter nonsense rather than help fight for artists' rights.

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