Volume 74, Number 40 | February 9 - 15, 2005

Street artists fear Gerson will paint them into a corner

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert
Artist Jill Stasium quickly packed up a fellow vendor’s canvases last Sunday on W. Broadway after hearing what later turned out to be a false rumor that police were ticketing vendors.

By Hemmy So

Street artists on W. Broadway are feeling shock, anger and worry after Councilmember Alan Gerson’s recent bombshell announcement to them about proposed regulations that, they say, would either restrict their numbers or relocate them outside the area to a pier or vacant lot.

But Gerson insists that he has not yet decided upon a concrete proposal.

“We have a task force which is going to make recommendations later on in March,” Gerson said. “The task force is considering a range of recommendations to relieve sidewalk overcrowding, including several recommendations put forward by artist vendors themselves. It’s too premature to comment on any particular suggestions.”

There is already a backlash from many street artists over the announcement, with some ready to race to the courthouse and others proposing alternatives to new city legislation.

“I’m going to lead thousands of vendors against it,” said Robert Lederman, president of Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics, or A.R.T.I.S.T. “We’re going to sue over it. We want full First Amendment protection.”

In 1994, Lederman filed a federal lawsuit against the city to prohibit city legislation mandating licenses for anyone selling art on the street. He won the suit in 1996 and sued again in 2001 when the city proposed a permitting system for street artists through the Parks Department. He won that lawsuit in 2003.

Lawrence White, a member of the Soho International Artists Cooperative, however, hopes Gerson will first enforce existing laws against illegal merchandise vending and bootlegging.

“We need to enforce laws rather than restrict the number of legal people by restricting the First Amendment rights of fine artists,” White said. “If illegal vendors and bootleggers were gone, half or fewer [of the total number of vendors] would remain.”

White presented a proposal to Gerson that reinforces existing vending rules for W. Broadway from Houston St. to Broome St. The proposal requires protection for limited types of artwork, artist identification and proof of copyright or ownership of the works for sale.

White said he received strong support for the proposal from local residents, businesses on W. Broadway and individual members of the First Police Precinct.

Gerson said, however, that current regulations don’t work and that the Department of Consumer Affairs has effectively ceased enforcing them. “The department has not proposed any rules to improve the situation, so we’re going to do that,” he said. Although Gerson’s proposals are just for his First Council District, he said they could well be adopted by the city, if they prove popular.

“Our first priority is assuring the safety and livability of our sidewalks. We want solutions that work for vendors as well as residents,” he added.

Some W. Broadway artists fear that new regulations will fail to distinguish between artists and general merchandise vendors.

“We asked [Gerson] for First Amendment protection and to get rid of illegal vendors,” said Jill Stasium, a painter who sells her work on the corner of W. Broadway and Prince St. “Then you wouldn’t have overcrowding the streets. He keeps lumping us with vendors.”

L.A. Willette, a sidewalk art vendor who sets up shop nearby, emphasized the distinction between artists and vendors who sell wares on sidewalks. “Not everybody’s going to do this. People aren’t going to get up at five in the morning to do this, it’s artists,” he said. “It’s not about people selling tchotchkes and yo-yos. It’s about First Amendment rights for artists.”

Both Lederman and White also pointed out current efforts to bump street art vendors off W. Broadway.

Lederman noted that the city’s street-furniture initiative will likely bring numerous commercial sidewalk kiosks to Soho, and White expressed dismay at some citizens’ nonpermitted efforts to set up large planter boxes on sidewalks to block temporary displays.

Although A.R.T.I.S.T. and the Cooperative are taking separate, different approaches to battling Gerson’s presumed plans for street artists on the coveted Soho strip, its two representatives expressed extreme disappointment in Gerson.

“It’s my opinion that Alan is going against his word to us and going on a very steep decline,” White said. “But we have hopes that as our advocacy becomes more obvious, as our frustration becomes louder and as our truth becomes clearer, he’ll realize that he’s wrong.”

Making White, Stasium and Willette feel particularly wronged is the fact that they have politically supported Gerson in the past.

“I did support him,” Stasium said. “I wasn’t in lock step with him, but I felt like supporting him that this is somebody who is going to help us, he’s for us, for street artists. But my support is definitely not there right now. A lot of people think that we, Larry White and me, we’re in lock step with him and I think [Gerson is] telling people that. But we’re not.”

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