Ruminations on Freedom of Expression OR Why Does The Mayor Who is Donating 32 MIllion to the Arts Think Artists Should be Shut out of City Parks?
I spent last Saturday up near the water towers………
I had a wonderful time at The Highline on Saturday — the weather was beautiful, the crowds were plentiful and my vendor neighbors were very pleasant.
I met people who had purchased from me before on Etsy, which was a nice surprise and also met folks who had heard about me through the whole MTA brouhaha. I had a great response to my work. I’d say that about 40-50% of the people who came up to my table and chatted with me ended up purchasing something.
These sewn prints were popular:
People really enjoyed snapping up my five-packs of metro card painting prints:
Sounds good, right?
Of the several hundred, (perhaps thousands?) of people who traversed The Highline on Saturday, only about 20-30 people managed to wander over to my table. I sold ten pieces - not bad, but not fantastic.
I had a lovely display, with a tall yet discrete and eye-catching rack to hang my paintings. Two wicker baskets held my prints on my burlap-covered table. My prices were reasonable and ranged from an affordable $15-$20 for prints and just up to $50 for the original paintings on metro cards. I had my press clips on display too.
So what happened?
The Bloomberg administration has put in place a new series of restrictions on the previously un-fettered vending of “expressive matter” in four of the city’s busiest parks — Central Park, Battery Park, Union Square Park and The Highline Park. Prior to these new restrictions, which were fully enforced on Saturday, vendors of “expressive matter” were free to set up wherever they pleased in these parks, as long as they did not obstruct pathways or sidewalks.
Currently under litigation, the new rules sharply restrict the number of artists who can sell in the parks. Last weekend, art vendors at The Highline could set up wherever they pleased and perhaps 10-12 did so. It was certainly not overrun with vendors. But with the new rules, only FIVE vendors were permitted to set up and had to do so in the spots designated by the Parks Department. The competition for these restricted spots has now become fierce, even more so in the larger parks.
My husband took one look at the spot I was given (the last one available) and labeled it a ghost town.
“Yuh nah go sell nuttin’ dung soh!” he said, shaking his head and kissing teeth. It was tucked in the corner of a vast, dark and empty expanse with a roof cover. No plants nor greenery, no sun - just concrete.
Let’s take a closer look at my spot (one of the 2 spots in red circle):
Ok, at first glance, it looks good. We’re under a partial roof (as is the triple vendor spot, higher north), which is good protection from the sun or the occasional rain shower. But it is pretty dark. It does look like a nice wide expanse to accommodate foot traffic.
Until you take a closer look:
See those two slim white rectangles stretching along the length of the walk way? They are two approx. 8-foot high concrete walls, virtually splitting the walkway into two lanes and obstructing each side’s view of the other. Anyone walking on the other side of those walls couldn’t see us. And for the most part, the foot traffic flowed on the other side of that wall.
And why is that, you say? Why do people primarily walk on the eastern side of that wall? And the two vendors were placed on the west?
There is a huge scaffolding in place at the entrance to our section of the Highline. The placement of the scaffolding support beams, as well as that of the greenery/plantings, is such that people naturally veer to the right as they walk northward.
Likewise, if you enter The Highline by the elevator from the street, the tendency is to walk straight across to the manicured path and turn left, heading north. Nobody comes out of that elevator and turns right to walk into a dark tunnel.
We were pretty invisible to anyone entering from either location. We stared at that concrete wall all day, mentally willing people to just step over to our side!
It was laughable, really, to think that anyone would bother heading our way. I complained to a Park ranger who just shook her head saying, “I can’t believe they even put anybody down in that corner.” It was like a vast empty, dark bowling alley.
The vendors next to me (they affixed miniature paintings to lucite globes which could be worn as a pendant or used as magnets) were very distraught. While grateful to have secured one of the approved locations, they say their sales dropped by 60% when forced to set up here rather than at the more visible location they had used last week. And this is their only source of income…..
The worst part of it all is that hundreds of artists are now vying for a very small number of “official” vending spots, some of which are clearly not very desirable locations. It reminds me of that old joke — “The food is so bad at this restaurant — and in such small portions!”
There are other city parks where the rules do not apply — but they are less traveled and therefore less desirable for someone who clearly wants the largest audience possible for their work. I can understand the need to manage congestion, but it could be done without benefitting only a handful of artists at the expense of several hundred more. Earning a living from art is difficult enough without a clamp down on the few affordable methods of selling our work in NYC.
And clearly, if New Yorkers and city visitors were not interested in seeing art and/or purchasing it in our parks, there would not be so many artists clamoring for the chance to do so. There would not be such a supply of artists if there were no demand for their art, right? No one can afford to sit for 8 hours or more in the park unless there is a demand for their work.
Further, urban parks are not like the vast wilderness of our National Parks, which need to be preserved from commercialization and over-crowding. Urban parks provide both bustling plazas to socialize, share art and music, eat and drink AND ALSO provide solitary spots of natural beauty.
You can and should continue to find both in NYC’s parks without shutting out the bulk of a vibrant art community for which the city is known.
Please contact the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, here and also Adrian Benape, Commissioner of NYC Parks and Recreation, here, to express your displeasure with this new restriction in our parks.
We are the city of Lady Liberty, aren’t we?