MANHATTAN (CN) – Despite two legal victories confirming their right to display art without a permit, street artists say, New York City has “waged a counter movement to quash those rights.” The artists say they won a hard-fought case after the city arrested and harassed artists showing their work outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they claim that the “the mayor’s personal favorite artists” have been given free passes to display “hideous metallic structures” and “monstrosities.”
Plaintiffs Robert Lederman and Jack Nesbitt both describe themselves as visual artists and First Amendment activists.
They claim that the city for years has been pushing artists out of public spaces in favor of corporate vendors and artists favored by Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg.
Although the city cites public safety and sidewalk congestion to justify regulating street artists, the plaintiffs say the code is not enforced against the Strand Bookstore’s three kiosks “at the very congested 60th Street subway entrance,” nor against the Union Square Green Market companies, which “create more danger and congestion than all artists combined.”
Donning critic’s hats, Lederman and Nesbitt lambast what they call “the mayor’s personal favorite artists,” who they say were excluded from official harassment. They describe Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installation “The Gates” as “some 7,503 gate-like monstrosities encumbered over 23 miles in Central Park” and Olafur Eliasson’s “NYC Waterfalls” as “four hideous metallic structures that wasted energy from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.”
They add that “in May of this year, warning signs and caution tape due to the risk of children getting scalded were finally put up on large metal domes designed by a consultant hired by the Union Square Partnership Business Improvement District in Evelyn’s Playground in Union Square Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park.”
The men say repression of street artists intensified after the Department of Consumer Affairs imposed a moratorium on licenses in 1979. They say they “were arrested on many, well-publicized occasions” since then.
Lederman says he joined other artists joined in Bery v. City of New York in 1997, where the 2nd Circuit found the licensing requirements unconstitutional.
The City defied that ruling in March 1998, the plaintiffs say, sparking a 2-month-long protest of a law banning vendors from setting up directly in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and allowing only 24 artists in the vicinity.
“The artists’ demonstrations for 65 straight days outside the Met resulted in them being arrested, jailed, threatened with arrest, ticketed, assaulted, falsely arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and their artwork confiscated and destroyed,” the complaint states.
The “artists filed suit and eventually won in Lederman v. Giuliani,” in which a district court judge tossed out all criminal charges and granted an injunction preventing the city from enforcing licensing rules, according to the complaint.
Lederman and Nesbitt say the city, having lost its appeals to this ruling, “updated” the New York City Administrative Code on Sept. 15, 2005 to “mischaracterize” the court order as “temporary.”
Lederman adds that the Parks Department and its Commissioner Adrian Benepe violated his civil rights by having him arrested at the High Line, the public park built on the remains of the elevated freight railroad in Lower Manhattan.
They seek $1 million in damages for constitutional violations.
They are represented by Julie Milner.