When Nellie, one of Agora Gallery’s friendly and approachable gallery assistants, was on her way to work last Friday, she was surprised to see that to get to work she had to pass a protest taking place en route,in front of the Chelsea Community Center between 9th and 10th Avenue on W25th Street – which, as many of you know, is near the gallery.
Getting closer, she found that it was a protest made up largely of artists, carrying signs that read things like ‘Art is Power’ and ‘Artists are the heart of New York’, together with comments about New York’s mayor, Mayor Bloomberg.
This event was a part of a wider protest movement which is currently active in the city, and which objects to a suggestion recently made by the Bloomberg administration regarding art vendors in New York’s public parks.
It is common for vendors in public places to act under restrictions relating to numbers and location – which is why there aren’t hundreds of hot dog sellers outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or MoMA. But art vendors, who are often artists who set up a table or stall in popular spots as a way of introducing and selling their art directly to the public, are not currently subject to these restrictions in the same way.
They’re covered by a 1982 law which made special allowances for vendors selling ‘expressive matter’ under the First Amendment, as expression through art is widely considered to fall into the category of free speech. That’s why, if you visit Central Park when the weather is good, you’ll often find a large number of vendors selling expressive material.
According to officials, there are sometimes as many as 300 art vendors in the four most busy parks alone, and some say that’s too many. The proposal is to cut it down to 81 in total. Adrian Benepe, the Parks Commissioner, says that passersby shouldn’t have to walk what he calls ‘a gauntlet of vendors’, but should be able to stroll peacefully, away from merchandise. Another problem, he says, is that arts vendors sometimes sell things that don’t necessarily fall into the ‘expressive art’ category – things like fridge magnets or CDs.
Artist activists, though, are disgusted with the suggested change in the law. Some fear the message of an administration who are, as they see it, tampering with a matter that is protected under the First Amendment. Others have voiced concerns about the proposed ‘first come, first served’ method of allocating the permitted vending spots, asking if people should have to sleep on park benches to get a spot in the morning.
Some artists are also hurt that their place in the life of the city seems to go unrecognized. Many people, both tourists and residents, have commented that they enjoy walking past the varied collection of stalls, experiencing the lively atmosphere that comes with it, and perhaps picking up a small landscape painting for $10 or so after chatting with the artist who created it.
It’s one of the attractive features of being in New York that art and life seem to blend (relatively) harmoniously, and that art seems to be an integral part of the nature of the city. Many of the artist vendors feel that they are a part of this themselves, and think that the administration is missing this aspect of the matter.
It’s obviously an emotive issue, and one that will continue to develop in the coming weeks and months. What’s your opinion? Are there artist vendors where you live? What role do they play in the city? Let us know in the comments!