Who's First Amendment Is This Anyway?

Below is an op-ed from The Washington Square Park Blog regarding the Highline, City of New York, and Violating Artist's First Amendment Rights: 

 

The High Line Vs. Artists

 The High Line prides itself on being one of NYC’s most important art venues. It even has a paid full-time art curator. Unfortunately, the High Line hates artists.

The High Line opened in 2009 to much fanfare. Among the first things Friends of the High Line – a private organization given license by the city to run this public park – did was to have two street artists illegally arrested. I was the first artist to display his work on the High Line and the first arrested (two times in 2 weeks) and I was also the first to sue and win.* The “non-profit” proudly documented the false arrests they had demanded in their coffee table book, The High Line, released in 2015 (Phaedon Books, page 412).

To keep artists out of the park from the beginning, the Friends Of The High Linepressured Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to enact severe anti-street artist rules for all NYC Parks. These new restrictions on artists, enacted in 2010*+, eviscerated the free speech rights we had spent 20 years winning. Those precedent-setting Federal court rulings granted street artists full access to public streets and to all NYC parks to create, display and sell First Amendment protected art, subject only to reasonable limits on the size and placement of displays; limits which street artists and City officials had long accepted.

To justify the Parks Department enacting drastic new restrictions against street artists, the Friends of the High Line co-founder testified at a public hearing that the park was too small and narrow to accommodate art displays and that such displays would commercialize the park, make it dangerous for pedestrians and damage the aesthetic Friends of the High Line wanted to achieve.*

An entire public park was envisioned as reserved for the corporate-sponsored art approved by Friends of the High Line.

Fast forward to the present.

The High Line now hosts many overpriced food stands; a restaurant; sprawling corporate promotions; fashion shows; product promotions; corporate-sponsored art displays and a new art gallery. The officially-curated High Line art focuses on artists who are sponsored or collected by the wealthy patrons of the High Line or promoted by the elitist galleries that surround the park.

Despite it being a publicly-funded park, special events require substantial financial “donations” to Friends of the High Line, sometimes millions of dollars for a one night event.

From The Friends of the High Line website:

“Corporate and foundation events on the High Line may include sponsored public events or programs and, on a limited basis, private corporate events on the High Line. Events on the High Line require a significant contribution to support the park’s maintenance and operations and are subject to the approval of the City of New York and the Department of Parks & Recreation.”

How are these millions of dollars in “donations” spent?

Much of it pays the salaries of the High Lines’ top executives, some of whom earn more for a part time job than the Mayor or the US President. These executives must negotiate as many corporate events as possible in order to collect their inflated salaries, which totaled $1.3 million dollars in executive compensation in fiscal year 2015.*

 

5 Locations for Street Artists — Vendors Arrive at 3 a.m. for 7 a.m. spot

Despite the park being 1.45 miles long, street artists are limited to 5 small 8′ X 3′ artist spots crammed next to each other inside a dank unlit tunnel.

Although the park does not open until 7 a.m., to get one of the 5 spots an artist must line up as early as 3 a.m.. Each spot is marked by a plastic medallion. The 5 spots are usually held by the same art vendors. Fights frequently break out when any new artist tries to find a location.

Limiting artists’ to 5 spots hidden in dark a tunnel is apparently not demeaning enough, so on many days the Friends of the High Line eliminate anywhere from 2 to all 5 medallion spots to make way for a corporate promotion or private party. The seasonal food cart concessions (which pay huge fees to the Friends of the High Line) take up about 30 times the space these 5 little artists spots do, and are not removed for events.

Art As A Cultural Cover Story

While systematically undermining artists’ rights, The Friends Of The High Line uses high profile art installations to attract corporate funding and obtain charitable donations from unsuspecting art lovers, amounting to $18-20 million dollars per year.* The art installations are thinly-veiled camouflage for a massive real estate scam disguised as a public park.

From conception, the High Line was intended to boost the property values of real estate investors, which it has more than succeeded in doing. The ever-expanding glut of giant new residential towers and exclusive stores that surround the park today are, in many cases, owned by board members or major contributors to The High Line.

“DEVELOPERS LOVE THE HIGH LINE”

“At one point during the CB2 meeting, {High Line co-founder] Hammond stated “developers love the High Line.” Parks Commissioner Benepe told the New York Times that the High Line has “been a huge magnet for development.” In fact, because it is so expensive to maintain, there has been an effort, relatively unsuccessful thus far, to get residents in nearby buildings to contribute to its maintenance as part of living fees. This effort is considered controversial and unwelcome among those who want more public and less private.” – From WSP Blog

The humiliations that the Friends of the High Line has inflicted on NYC’s street artist community since 2010 should have come to an end on September 20, 2017. On that date, NY State Supreme Court Judge Lucy Billings overturned the park rules that limited artists to those 5 medallion spots.

Instead, Friends Of The High Line and the Parks Department found a judge willing to suspend the Billings’ ruling with a stay order based on the justification that the PEP (Parks Enforcement Patrol) and artists would be “confused” by a change in enforcement policy. The Parks Department is now attempting to overturn Judge Billings’ ruling.

Friends of the High Line must be held accountable for their ongoing mistreatment of NYC artists and their concerted efforts to destroy our constitutionally protected free speech rights throughout NYC.

A.R.T.I.S.T.’S 3 DEMANDS:

  • In a public letter, The Friends Of The High Line (FHL) will apologize to all NYC street artists for how they have been treated and, in the interests of artists’ First Amendment rights, demand that the Parks Department drop their appeal of Judge Billings’ ruling. This letter must be prominently published by FHL in the NY Times, The Villager and in their FHL newsletter.
  • The medallions located on The High Line and in Central Park, Union Square Park and Battery Park are to be permanently removed.
  • The PEP (Parks Enforcement Patrol) will return to enforcing the park rules in relation to street artists (aka Expressive Matter Vendors) that were in effect before 2010, as per Judge Billings ruling. Numerous top level Parks Department and PEP officials have testified under oath that these rules were more than sufficient to protect the public and all NYC parks.

Before 2010, the park rules for artists were virtually identical to the NYC street vending rules for artists and are detailed here.

Until this controversy is fully resolved, we will strive to bring it to the attention of every person who visits the High Line, donates to or otherwise supports it. The message will spread far and wide that Friends Of The High Line hates artists.

Robert Lederman is an NYC street artist who has won 6 Federal lawsuits about artists’ First Amendment rights. He has successfully helped NYC vendors with hundreds of summonses.

*+ Ed. note: The “expressive matter” rules enacted in 2010 under the Bloomberg Administration, among other things, limited the number of street artists at specific parks, focusing on The High Line, Union Square Park, Central Park, and Battery Park City (notably all parks run by private organizations). Based on these new rules, these parks then “allowed” a limited number of artists at a time.

 
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