High Line Hates Artists, But Court Rules for Us

Activist Robert Lederman said the law is on artist vendors’ side, and that the High Line can’t restrict their number to only five for the whole park. Photo courtesy Robert Lederman.
Activist Robert Lederman said the law is on artist vendors’ side, and that the High Line can’t restrict their number to only five for the whole park. Photo courtesy Robert Lederman.

BY ROBERT LEDERMAN | The High Line prides itself on being one of New York City’s most important art venues. It even has a paid full-time art curator. Unfortunately, the High Line hates artists.

When The High Line opened in 2009, one of the first things its operators did was to have two street artists illegally arrested. I was the first artist to display his work on the High Line, the first arrested (two times in two weeks) and the first to sue and win.

The Friends of The High Line proudly documented the false arrests they had demanded on Page 412 of their coffee-table book, “The High Line” (Phaedon Books).

To keep artists out of the elevated park, the Friends of The High Line pressured Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to enact severe anti-street artist rules for all New York City parks. The new restrictions imposed on artists 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 New York City parks to create, display and sell First Amendment-protected art. These rulings were subject only to reasonable limits on the size and placement of displays — limits that 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 elevated 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 Web site:

“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 Line’s 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 in executive compensation in fiscal year 2015.

Despite the park being 1.45 miles long, street artists are limited to five small 8-foot-by-3-foot artist spots crammed next to each other inside a dank unlit tunnel. Although the park does not open until 9 a.m., to get one of the five spots, an artist must line up as early as 3 a.m. Each spot is marked by a plastic medallion. The five 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 five spots hidden in a dark tunnel is apparently not demeaning enough; so, on many days, the Friends of the High Line eliminates anywhere from two to all five 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 five little artists spots do, and are not removed for events.

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 million to $20 million 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.

The humiliations that the Friends of the High Line has inflicted on New York City’s street-artist community since 2010 should have come to an end on Sept. 20, 2017. On that date, New York State Supreme Court Judge Lucy Billings overturned the park rules that limited artists to those five 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) officers and artists would be “confused” by a change in enforcement policy. At the behest of Friends of the High Line, the Parks Department is now attempting to overturn Judge Billings’ ruling.

Friends of the High Line must be held accountable for its ongoing mistreatment of New York City artists and for its concerted efforts to destroy our constitutionally protected free-speech rights throughout New York City.

We New York City street artists have three demands.

First, we demand that, in a public letter, the Friends of The High Line will apologize to all New York City street artists for how they have been treated and, in the interests of artists’ First Amendment rights, demand that the Parks Department drop its appeal of Judge Billings’ ruling. This letter must be prominently published by Friends of the High Line in The New York Times, The Villager, and in the Friend of the High Line’s newsletter.

Second, the medallions restricting locations for artists on the High Line — and also in Central Park, Union Square Park and Battery Park — are to be permanently removed.

Finally, we demand that the PEP officers 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 New York City parks. Before 2010, the park rules for artists were virtually identical to the New York City street vending rules for artists.

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.

Lederman is president, A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics)