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Fears over the future of a Keith Haring mural in New York

The director of the artist’s foundation once called the piece “a lexicon of his vocabulary”

Tenants due to be evicted from a building in the Morningside Heights area of Manhattan say they are worried about the fate of a mural Keith Haring painted across three floors of a stairwell in 1983 or 84. At that time, the former convent building was leased by the Catholic youth organisation Grace House, and Haring painted the mural in one evening, watched by some of the young people there attending a retreat. The artist had visited Grace House multiple times, DJed a party there and convinced the programme director Gary Mallon—backed by the youth—to let him deck the walls.

The five-storey structure is owned by a neighbourhood parish, the Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension, which has rented out modest living spaces in the building for the past three years. Tenants were asked to vacate the premises by 1 August, DNAinfo reports, with the church citing its financial problems in a letter sent to the tenants four months ago. Tenants do not know of the church’s plans for the building, though some have told DNAinfo they have seen developers visit the building. The church did not immediately respond to The Art Newspaper’s request for comment. In late July, two tenants filed a joint lawsuit against the church, alleging the eviction is illegal according to the rent stabilisation laws of the state of New York. They remain in the building, along with some other tenants who were permitted to stay for additional time by the church.

The mural is “part of our identities”, one of the tenants who filed the lawsuit, Robert Savina, told DNAinfo. It is also a valuable example of Haring’s work; as Julia Gruen, the executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, told the New York Times in 2007: “In terms of imagery, it’s like a lexicon of [Haring’s] vocabulary.” The line of dancing figures moving up the stairwell begins with a Radiant Baby figure and includes other recurring icons like the barking dog.

Tenants speaking to DNA info claimed the landlords “don’t really care about [the murals]”, but this is contradicted by the 2007 article in the New York times, which says that the church was “exploring ways to profit from its hidden Haring”.

A concerned tenant reportedly got in touch with the Keith Haring foundation last year about the murals, but did not follow up. A spokeswoman for the foundation told The Art Newspaper over email that the organisation has reached out to the church and is “currently trying to learn the facts about the matter”.

Update: The New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who represented the artist's estate for 13 years after his death, says "the West 108th Street mural is an example of Keith’s generous character and his commitment to art as social engagement. Keith often spent more time creating public murals in children’s centres, hospitals, and playgrounds than he did in the studio". But many of the spaces Haring painted murals for have been torn down since his death in 1990, Deitch says, and in several cases section of wall the artist painted have been sold to help benefit charities. The current situation in Morningside Heights "is an example of the threat to social services with rising expenses and the rising values of properties in changing urban neighbourhoods".

The fate of the stairwell murals may not be tied to the building's future, however. "New digital technology allows mural works like this one to be precisely documented so that they can be recreated if an appropriate new context can be found," Deitch says. "In 2008, to mark the 50th anniversary of Keith’s birth, we were able to re-create his legendary Houston/Bowery mural from 1982" at its original location. It is unclear if the West 108th Street mural has been digitally documented, but "this should be done", Deitch says.