Fairs Analysis USA

Street artists go to court to protect their work

A New York legal case is challenging traditional views of graffiti

Lady Pink, Lady Of The Leaf, 2011

A legal battle between a group of artists and the owners of 5Pointz, the Long Island graffiti complex, has challenged the way street art is viewed as an ephemeral medium. The case, which the lawyer representing the artists says is not over despite the murals being whitewashed last month, is the first to examine whether authorised graffiti is protected under US law.

In their lawsuit, filed in New York in October, 17 artists claimed that their murals, which had been painted with permission from the owners of 5Pointz since 1993, were protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act (Vara) and should not be torn down to make way for $400m luxury flats. But Gerald Wolkoff, the owner of the buildings, argued that the murals did not qualify for protection because they were temporary and were never intended to be preserved for posterity.

One week before Wolkoff whitewashed the murals under the cover of darkness on 18 November, a judge ruled that he could not grant a preliminary injunction preventing the development of 5Pointz and that a temporary restraining order should be lifted. According to a letter filed to the court on 19 November, the artists are now seeking additional damages for the intentional destruction of their work.

The case has raised questions about the status of street art and graffiti, which have traditionally been seen as short-lived art forms. But with street artists increasingly operating within the gallery system (Lehmann Maupin (K15) is bringing work by the Brazilian street artists Os Gêmeos to Art Basel Miami Beach [ABMB] after announcing the addition of the twin brothers to its roster in October), the graffiti streetscape is being radically redefined.

Nowhere is the infiltration of street art into the mainstream—and the resulting gentrification of the neighbourhood—more pronounced than in Miami’s Wynwood district. Jessica Goldman Srebnick, the chief executive of Goldman Properties, says that when her family discovered Wynwood in 2006 the area was full of shoe warehouses and “the architecture was non-descript”, although she notes that street art was already a feature. In 2009, Jessica’s father, the late property developer Tony Goldman, launched Wynwood Walls, an outdoor gallery of murals.

Goldman Srebnick is also proving her commitment to street art. This year, to coincide with Art Basel Miami Beach, she is co-organising, with the art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, an exhibition of female street artists, “Women on the Walls” (opening 3 December). Deitch also worked with Tony Goldman on the first exhibition at Wynwood Walls in 2009. This year, nine women, including Lady Pink (whose work was at 5Pointz), Aiko and Faith 47, have been commissioned to paint murals either at Wynwood Walls or in the surrounding area. An exhibition featuring works by 15 female artists, priced between $1,000 and $50,000, will also take place inside the gallery.

Goldman Srebnick says that while the outdoor murals that Goldman Properties commissions are not considered permanent, the company commits to keeping them for at least two years and thoroughly documents all works, including making time-lapse videos of the painting process. She describes some murals as “masterpieces” that she would find hard to see go—Goldman Srebnick says it was difficult, for example, to watch Shepard Fairey paint over his original 2009 mural last year—but she remains philosophical about their lifespan. “Change is a part of life,” she says. “The history and style of street art is such that it doesn’t last forever. There’s an evolution to neighbourhoods, and to art.” Goldman Srebnick points out that she always lets artists know that the buildings they paint on might be developed, but that no contracts are drawn up. “It’s called a relationship,” she says.

The street art curator Pedro Alonzo says that a victory for the 5Pointz artists would have made it difficult for others to get permission to paint walls without very tight contracts. In San Diego, Alonzo says, artists often sign waivers saying they relinquish the rights to their work when a property owner gives permission to paint on a building.

The French photographer and street artist, JR, who is represented by Galerie Perrotin and currently has a solo show at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, which has been organised by Alonzo (until 2 February 2014), perhaps sums it up best. “For me 99% of my [outdoor] work is supposed to be temporary, so I’m not surprised if it is demolished or washed away,” he says. “Some artists want their work to stay up forever. For me it’s part of the game, you don’t know if it will stay up or if you will be arrested.”

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6 Jan 14
17:14 CET


I think this is so cool, and I kindof agree with JR, who I think is doing an amazing work, I have allot of his pieces on my wall. I don't expect street art to stay up forever, because if it is never whashed away, then how is it suposed to be room for other artists to put their work up? But I can see their point in wanting to protect their art. And I think that's where the internet and the cameras comes in. Once u take a picture of it, it will last forever. And if they can't take that, maybe they should move on to another kind of art. Not sayin I think it's right, but that it might have a few advantages to.

11 Dec 13
19:30 CET


Graffiti, or "street art," is not art (fine art) by any objective definition of the term [see http://tinyurl.com/DefinitionArt-Ch6-WhatArtIs]. In the "Art and the Law" section of Chapter 15 ("Public Implications") of 'What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand' (Open Court, 2000), we discuss the importance of such a definition in art law. Much of that discussion (select pages from 289-296) can be viewed online at the Amazon.com page for the book. Search for the word "legal." On page 293, for example, we quote Judge Jon O. Newman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in part as follows: ". . . a determination . . . necessarily requires some consideration of whether the object is a work of art." We then apply that reasoning to cases involving VARA. 'What Art Is' is in the collection of academic and public libraries in the U.S. (and in the U.K.). Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) - http://www.aristos.org

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