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Holiday message from NY Street Artist

from NYC Street Artists:

When people criticize street artists and seek to restrict us, it is
usually in response to our overly zealous pursuit of our private
financial purpose. The familiar complaints are that we compete with
stores, take up too much valuable sidewalk space and add to
pedestrian congestion.

When people praise us, it is usually in response to our pursuit of
the public purpose. That public purpose manifests in many ways, from
beautifying the streets with our art, to engaging people in
stimulating conversations to standing up for the public’s right to free speech.

These two purposes are mutually dependent, and that is exactly how
the founding fathers saw them when they wrote the US Constitution. To
the extent that we achieve a balance between these two currents it
brings about a harmonious environment in which everyone can coexist
and benefit.


Dear members of A.R.T.I.S.T.,

As we enter the last few days of 2006 I wanted to share these thoughts with you.

It has been my honor and pleasure to serve you in 2006. I sincerely hope this past year has been a good one for you.

Many excellent new members joined ARTIST in 2006 including individuals with a strong commitment to preserving free speech on public property. It is such individuals that we all depend on for the continuation of our rights.

Throughout the 13 year history of this group there have been two simultaneous currents of involvement by ARTIST members, a private one and a public one. We all have our feet in both of these currents.

The private current is about making our personal living selling art on the street. It is a practical financial involvement.

The public purpose is about defending every artists’ Constitutional right to freedom of speech on public property. This purpose appears to be idealistic, impractical or even abstract at times.

Sometimes these two currents appear to be in conflict.

From the private financial view, every new artist that comes to the street is a potential rival for vending space and for sales. Limiting access to the public spaces we use would seem to benefit us financially.

From the public view, every new artist that comes to the street adds to the strength of our movement. By sharing access to this valuable public space with new artists who are willing to vigorously defend full freedom of speech, we strengthen our own moral claim to freely use this public space.

Are these two currents really in conflict or do they enhance each other?

The foundation on which our private financial purpose rests is the public purpose of free speech.

These two purposes are very different and at the same time very intimately connected. Without our public right to free speech on publicly owned property, we would not have the private financial opportunity to earn our living as artists in the unique way that we do.

My involvement with ARTIST began in late 1993 when the City of New York got serious about trying to eliminate street artists. In the beginning, it was simply a private involvement, a response to the authorities preventing my earning a living by repeatedly arresting me and confiscating my art.

Trying to defend all artists, let alone the entire society’s free speech rights, was not in my mind at that time. I imagined ARTIST would hold a few protests, file a lawsuit and that, win or lose, the group would disband within six months time and I would go back to
pursuing my art career.

Like many of the early members of ARTIST I gradually developed a commitment to the higher purpose of defending the public’s free speech rights rather than just my private financial rights. Today I see these as two sides of the same coin.

This relationship between a private and a public purpose, is also at the core of the legal controversy over street artists. We appear to City officials and to the public as both a private problem and a public asset.

When people criticize street artists and seek to restrict us, it is usually in response to our overly zealous pursuit of our private financial purpose. The familiar complaints are that we compete with stores, take up too much valuable sidewalk space and add to pedestrian congestion.

When people praise us, it is usually in response to our pursuit of the public purpose. That public purpose manifests in many ways, from beautifying the streets with our art, to engaging people in stimulating conversations to standing up for the public’s right to free speech.

These two purposes are mutually dependent, and that is exactly how the founding fathers saw them when they wrote the US Constitution. To the extent that we achieve a balance between these two currents it brings about a harmonious environment in which everyone can coexist and benefit.

The private sale of art on the street is intimately bound up with using art as a public means of expression. It takes money to live. Likewise, it takes money to communicate ideas whether they be political, social or religious.

Whether we are setting up a display of beautiful art, distributing political leaflets or advocating for some cause it takes a financial foundation to support these activities. That is why the courts ruled that we could sell as well as display our art under freedom of speech.

In order to maintain a truly balanced viewpoint about what it means to be a street artist it is important for us to never lose sight of this dual purpose.

Sometimes this is a lot easier to say than to do.

As we struggle to compete for vending spaces and sales and deal with the daily hassles of police enforcement it is very easy to lose sight of the public purpose. Standing in the street all day is hard under the best conditions, and more often than not, we must endure something other than the best of conditions.

It is tempting to focus only on our private financial needs and just forget about the public purpose. It is tempting to act selfishly, to pursue short term financial gains at the expense of our own and all other artists’ long term interests. We all know the problems caused
by street artists and vendors acting selfishly in terms of how much space they take up, where they set up and when they set up.

However, if we look at the situation clearly we will see that the realization of our private financial needs can only take place if we maintain the public purpose, which is to maintain the full right of free speech on public property.

As an advocacy group, ARTIST, our purpose also has these dual currents, the private and the public. We are simultaneously a group about protecting each individual artists’ financial rights and about protecting all artists’ full speech rights.

When we resist efforts to impose a permit or license on street artists it is not merely about financially avoiding the need to pay a fee. In terms of real freedom of speech, a permit that cost just one cent would still be a violation of our rights. Anything that requires us to get permission before communicating destroys freedom of speech and opens the door to further restrictions.

When we resist the idea of selling vending spots, permanently reserving them or assigning them by a lottery, it is not simply a matter of our being concerned about whether or not the members of ARTIST will get one of those choice assigned spots. Public space should not be offered for sale to the highest bidder. Once it is, the space has been privatized and there is no longer real freedom of speech on it.

When we as an advocacy group stand up for the widest possible inclusion of art mediums under the exemption from a license or permit, it seems to some artists like a threat to their private business interests. Won’t allowing more mediums of expression mean more competition for space and for sales, they ask?

Yet, isn’t the inclusiveness of all legitimate art mediums and the lack of needing any formal permission to set up exactly how we all came to be on the street? Not one of us needed to submit our art to a panel or to a city official or to get anyone’s permission before becoming a street artist.

Doesn’t this openness guarantee us all the freedom to create and sell art in as many different mediums as possible? Should we sacrifice our present freedom in the hope of improving the financial bottom line of our business?

Once we see this issue in perspective, fully understanding the relationship between our private financial purpose and the public rights that make our finances possible, we will be able to figure out the answers to such questions. We will also know what we have to do to preserve both our rights and our finances.

In 2007 the City of New York will, without question, seek to weaken our rights, seek to diminish the number of artists on the streets and in Parks and seek to privatize the public spaces we work in by selling off vending spots to the highest bidder. They have repeatedly
made it clear that this is their intention.

In NYC Parks today the City gets as much as half a million dollars for a single 8 foot vending spot. In 2007 we will see more than 4,000 sidewalk advertising kiosks installed on NYC sidewalks as part of the Street Furniture Initiative, for which the City got a fee of one billion dollars.

For the past 13 years, we street artists have been the main obstacle to this privatization of public space agenda being fully implemented throughout Parks and on every NYC street.

In the past we fought very hard to establish that as artists we had a right to work on the street and in Parks. Now our movement is reaching a more mature phase.

At this point in time, no one still questions whether or not we have a Constitutional right to sell art on the street. The NYPD, the City Council, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Parks Department, the BIDs and even the SoHo Alliance have all publicly accepted that we are going to be a permanent part of the public environment.

The controversy has now become all about how we set up our art displays, where we set them up, how many can be in one place and exactly what kinds of art we can sell.

In the past we had a very contentious relationship with NYC officials and police. This was inevitable because at that time their orders were to get rid of us, period.

After hundreds of arrests, hundreds of protests and winning numerous lawsuits, we earned the right to sell our art on public property. As a group, we have also earned their respect. No other group of artists or vendors in the U.S. has succeeded on this level.

Today the efforts of NYC officials and police are focused on dealing with the reality of our presence on just about every street and in every park. As you can see from the documents posted to the files section of the ARTIST website, they are now being told to respect our
rights, however begrudgingly. Enforcement today is all about getting us to obey the restrictions on size and placement of art displays and some rather arbitrary definitions about what is or is not art.

While enforcement of the vending laws is still done unfairly and arbitrarily, NYC officials are gradually modifying their actions in response to the efforts of ARTIST members. Ironically, it often is left to us to educate the legal authorities about what the vending
laws are and to insure that they enforce them properly and fairly.

Now we as a group are moving to a phase where the possibility exists for us to significantly influence what the laws are as well as how they are enforced. Changes are definitely in the works for 2007. We can just wait and let others makes those changes, or assume
responsibility for our future by making them ourselves.

Who knows more about the practical needs of street artists than we do? Who better than us to modify the existing laws so as to make the street environment more harmonious and functional?

Will we maintain our freedoms? Will they be taken from us by force, or worse, by tricking us into voluntarily giving them up in pursuit of a short term financial benefit or a reserved vending space?

The deciding factor will be you, the members of ARTIST. To the extent that you truly understand and value what you have, no one will ever be able to take it away from you.

If you share this point of view, I invite you to join the artist council.

It is a leadership council made up of members of ARTIST who want to share the responsibility for our collective future. I can promise you that being part of this council will be a stimulating and meaningful experience.

Your ideas about how we can maintain our position as the street artists with more freedom than any others in the entire world are very much needed. Let’s make 2007 the year we not only maintain but improve upon the foundation of freedom started 13 years ago.

Let us use our creativity to solve the problems faced by street artists ourselves rather than just wait till those with no interest in either our personal or our public purpose try to solve them for us.

Have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

Robert Lederman, President of A.R.T.I.S.T.
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NYCStreetArtists
201 896-1686
artistpres@…

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