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!

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5 Responses to Artists protest in NYC

  1. dlabella says:

    I have seen this before…..once space is limited, access is limited, and the space tends to end up being dominated by well-organized “regulars” and the diversity suffers. It is not as if there is a lack of space, and one would be hard pressed to rationalize what the city is proposing, or what they are afraid of, or if they feel that there is some untapped revenue straem that they have missed by allowing a certain amount of freedom for the vendors. While I cannot claim to own even a single refrigerator magnet, or to even have formulated a plan whereby that would soon change, who is to say that, so long as civility is maintained and there is no groundswell of opinion from the public against what occurs now or any impediment to traffic or safety concerns, we should selectively limit the number of vendors?

  2. In my citty not is art in the street,parck..not turist..but I like to much the contact artist-people-turist.Is necesary speak directly my opinions free my idea,my tecnical..my soul,my heart..proposing my art..Yes is good have contact direcly with people…I like..art..is my life..and tink at good realy art, creativity not imitations..Please Help ART a NYC… I comeback a NYC.Great artwork at everibody..
    All my Best, Ligia Dorina Dumitrache

  3. Susan Marx says:

    Is what they sell art? How will the average people be trained to walk into a gallery to permit themselves to buy the work of an emerging artist if they can decorate their homes with the kitch that is sold on the streets of New York for so much less? Tell mayor Bloomberg to do more to support creation of more galleries and outdoor art shows.

  4. Of course I support protectors! I”m always against any kind of suppression especially if it against artists.
    Buying an artist I experienced plenty of suppression when I lived in Soviet Union.
    I’m surprised that it is happening in NYC. In my heart NYC is the last bastion ( stand ) for freedom and as everybody knows is a Meka for artists.

    Maybe government would succeed at this time with regulations but NOBODY, NEVER can suppress artist free creative spirit. It was, is and would be here for ever.

  5. [...] A scene from a 2010 protest in New York City. (photo by Karin Maraney, via agoraartgalleryblog.com) [...]

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