File spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/avant-garde_1996/96-11-03.013, message 119

Date: Fri, 25 Oct 1996 09:58:45 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Art is Speech: Open Letter to N.Y.C. Officials (fwd)

Subject: Art is Speech: Open Letter to N.Y.C. Officials

Art is Speech: An Open Letter to
New York City Officials

For three years the Giuliani administration has waged
a war on New York City's street artists. City officials
decided, after intense pressure from business and real
estate interests, that artists were general vendors and
required a virtually unavailable license in order to
show or sell their works on the street. More than 350
times since 1993 artists were arrested and handcuffed,
charged with not having a license, their works
confiscated and sold at a monthly Police Department
auction or destroyed. Thousands of times during those
same years other artists were forced to close art
displays after being threatened with arrest.

For three years, an advocacy group, A.R.T.I.S.T.
claimed First Amendment protection for sidewalk art
displays. A Federal Appeals Court has just validated
this group's position in every detail and declared the
N.Y.C. Vending Ordinance unconstitutional as applied
to artists. The court explicitly stated that artists are
engaged in speech; that they can sell their art without
a license; and that the general public has its own First
Amendment right to view and buy art on the street as
an alternative to the narrow selection of art shown in
galleries and museums.

This ruling should come as no surprise to City
officials. Not one of the artists it arrested was ever
brought to trial. Before 1993 the City's own policy, as
described in letters issued to numerous artists, was
that they needed no license due to First Amendment
protection. The Mayor himself admitted at a 9/29/94
Town Hall public meeting before the commissioners of
every New York city agency, "I recognize that artists
have a First Amendment right to sell their art on
N.Y.C. City streets".

Now some elected officials and N.Y.C. administrators
are proposing restricting artists to a few "special
areas" as was forcibly done last year to unlicensed
general vendors on 125th Street. A 10/19/96 N.Y.
Times editorial actually called this proposed violation
of artists' First Amendment rights a "creative

What the Times editorial and most City officials fail
to understand is that artists are not vendors. Vendors
buy and sell merchandise, most of which is also
available in hundreds of stores throughout the City.
The measure of their success is how many items
they've sold. Their connection to what they sell is
impersonal. One product is interchangeable with any
other and whatever sells best is their ideal product.

Artists on the other hand, are engaged in
communication. An artists' ideas, beliefs and feelings
are communicated by creating, displaying and selling
their art to the public. The public views and buys art
as a dialogue with the artist. Every person who stops
at a sidewalk art display asks, "Are you the artist?
What inspired you to create this picture? What were
you trying to say?" People don't usually ask a vendor
of batteries or sunglasses what message they are
trying to communicate or what moved them.

Art has the power to inspire, to challenge and to
change people's lives. While most interactions with
artists don't end in a cash transaction, the measure of
a street artists' success on any given day is in the
quality of their communication, not merely how many
sales are made. Besides the few individuals who buy
a piece of art, every person who stops even for a
moment and looks at an artists' display is affected by
their unique vision. This is the very essence of
communication and cultural exchange.

The First Amendment protects our unabridged
freedom of speech. Access to the public is essential
for this freedom and numerous court decisions have
affirmed that the public streets of a city are a forum
for expression. City's can still enact reasonable rules
as to exactly how big an art display can be and where
on the street it can be placed, but they cannot create
arbitrary or irrational restrictions on this fundamental
form of human communication. Ghettoizing artists in
a parking lot or other secluded area violates the
essence of free speech and contradicts this use of
public streets as a forum for communication. It serves
neither artists' nor the public' best interests to
quarantine artists. Artists are not criminals or pariahs
and their mistreatment is an embarrassment in a City
famed for its cultural values and freedom of

I call on New York City's elected officials and
appointed legal guardians to renounce this illegal and
offensive anti-art policy and the proposed plan to
ghettoize art displays in a few empty lots. All that is
needed to protect the public and business interests is
to enforce reasonable size and placement rules for
artists. Anything more is a deliberate and knowing
violation of the American public's right to unabridged
freedom of speech.

Robert Lederman
President of A.R.T.I.S.T.
(Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics)
255 13th Street
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11215
(718) 369-2111
 e-mail or visit our web site:

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