29 March 1998
continued from page 1
Since 1993, more than 500 street artists have been arrested for not having a vending
licence. After the arrests began, the artists formed A.R.T.I.S.T., whose purpose
is not only to protect the rights of street artists but to protect everyone's First
Amendment right to free expression on public property.
In the October of 1996 they won a second circuit federal court case against Mayor
Giuliani, the Police Department and the Department of Parks. The ruling states that
"the city's requirement that appellants be licensed in order to sell their artwork
in public spaces constitutes an unconstitutional infringement of their First Amendment
However, despite winning the case in court the city, the Parks Department and the
real estate interests who instigated the policy to arrest artists in 1993 continue
to seek ways to illegally impose a licence or permit system on artists.
On Feb 11, Giuliani officially turned over Central Park to an elite group, The Central
Park Conservancy (New York Times, Feb 12 story of "Management of Central
Park's Going Private, and Daily News, Feb 12 story of "Central Park's
Privatizing public property is a key goal of the Giuliani administration and the
real estate interests that put him in office. The Conservancy, which the Daily
News describes as a private group that "gets the bulk of its money from
foundations corporations and wealthy individuals, many of whom live near the park"
uses the Park's concession money to promote its pet projects, among which is the
elimination of unionized workers in the park's system.
The Conservancy uses the Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum for cocktail parties
society weddings and elite fundraising activities. The general public is never invited
to these events, yet both Central Park and the property on which stands the museum
are public property.
After the Conservancy took over Central Park, the Parks Department announced that,
beginning from March 1, artists, who have been selling their works in front of the
Met for more than 100 years without a permit based on freedom of speech, would be
forced to apply for a permit and compete in a monthly lottery for one of 24 spots.
By taking away the artists' constitutional right to be in front of the Met for free
and replacing it with a US $25 (RM100) permit, the Parks Department intends to gradually
introduce a system of bidding for consessions.
According to Parks commissioner Henry Stern who said in an article in the Feb 26
issue of the New York Newsday, "These are extremely valuable spaces and people
who sell hotdogs there pay US $150,000 (RM 600,000) a year for the privilege and
may not like having to set up next to an artist who is there for free."
The Metropolitan Museum is the only major New York city art museum that has refused
to join the street artists' federal law suit and still refuses to publicly acknowledge
that artists have a First Amendment right to create, display and sell their art on
public property. The museum spends millions to present elitist shows like the tribute
to Gianni Versace.
Artists, not art collectors, create the value inherent in the world's art. If Americans
as a people are going to treasure famous art collections, how much more should the
value living working artists?
The history clashes between the Guiliani administration and street artist has threatened
to become an unpleasant issue between the Met and its neighbors City Hall has long
battled with street artists over when and where art can be sold on the public sidewalks
in the Big Bagel. The battle seemed to
have subsided for a while but it flared up again a month or so ago when police issued
summonses and confiscated work from the street artists near the Met, accusing them
for congregating in unsafe numbers and failing to apply for permits.
The Met, which the artists have attacked, has now come out to say that it views the
artists as a tourist attraction and says that patrons (of the Met) have never complained
about overcrowding, obstruction or unruly behavior
One point that the street artists, and I, like the Met agree with is that the artists,
the calligraphers and booksellers are not a nuisance or obstructionists. However,
the law enforcers think otherwise and
dismissed the museum's views as irrelevant, insisting that a permit is needed to
control the number of artists who occupy the plaza and to insure that those who do
business there pay sales taxes.
The artists insist and argue that their work is protected by the First Amend meet,
as are books, and no licences are required. The New York Times says the artists
see the crackdown by City Hall at the Met as a form of revenge against their court
An editorial in the influential newspaper sass that given the Federal Court's ruling
that art deserves the same protection as books, pamphlets and treaties, the city
must take care not to abridge the First Amendment Freedom, adding that the Met surely
knows how much traffic it can tolerate on its doorstep and the value those artists
represent to the neighborhood
"Unless sidewalk congestion truly becomes a safety hazard, the city ought to
lean towards preserving both free expression and the festive atmosphere the artists
bring" the editorial concludes.
I could not agree more.
This is my unsolicited advice to Mayor Giuliani: The city has improved a lot since
I arrived here two years ago and I believe the best is yet to come. Drop this harassment
against the artists who bring much curiosity, colour and gaiety to this otherwise
"stern" Upper East side.
Thi,, the price a civilized society which you strenuously want to foster in New York
has to pay; it is a worthy demand to meet.
Datuk Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations
(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )