In February 2005, Christo and Jeanne-Claude will create a “gentle disturbance” in Central Park by erecting 7500 gates at 10- to 15-foot intervals along 23 miles of Central Park’s pathways. Pedestrians, strollers, and joggers will pass under saffron-colored fabric dangling from the 16-foot-high gates.
But now, two months after mayor Bloomberg granted permission for The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are biting—or at least nibbling—the hands that feed them. They have just written a difficult letter to their old friend, admirer, and collector. “PLEASE, Mr. Mayor, change your mind about Intro #160,” the letter says.
One of the first things Bloomberg did when he got in office was to propose Intro #160. If passed, it would require artists who sell their work in the parks to compete in a lottery for a limited number of permits. If lucky enough to win, they would then have to pay about $25 a month for that permit. Intro #160 is due for a second hearing in the City Council this month. The parks department introduced similar legislation in 1998—legislation that was overturned by six courts because artist-vendors were judged, in a 1996 case, to have the same First Amendment protection that booksellers do.
But Bloomberg, the parks department, and the Central Park Conservancy (CPC) argue that a permit system is necessary because artist-vendors and, worse, vendors who sell crappy art are overcrowding the parks, posing a threat to public safety, and contributing to the commercialization of a supposedly Edenic public space. (In the Eden that is Keltch Park in the Bronx, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe is clearing the way for a Wendy’s to open.)
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are taking a risk in challenging the mayor over Intro #160, since he has been their biggest supporter in New York. “If the mayor of New York were not Michael R. Bloomberg, there would be no hope for The Gates,” Jeanne-Claude says. The artists, whose previous projects include wrapping the Reichstag, hanging a curtain across a valley in Colorado, and planting 3100 umbrellas across California and Japan, have been trying to get permission for The Gates since 1979. Giuliani wasn’t interested, but Bloomberg is—perhaps because he owns a Christo drawing.
Another reason why Christo and Jeanne-Claude got permission for their art display in the park while the city is attempting to force artist-vendors out is the small matter of a $3 million donation to the Central Park Conservancy. Jeanne-Claude says the CPC “extorted” the payment from them, and she isn’t surprised that they are supporting legislation that would force artist-vendors out of Central Park: “It fits with their philosophy. The CPC did a great job of restoring the park since 1979, but now they think it’s their park. They don’t want people in the park. They would like, if they could, to lock Central Park and let in only people who smell good,” she says. Christo concurs: “They treat Central Park like a museum, and if they could they would sell tickets for it.”
For Robert Lederman—president of ARTIST (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics) and one of the lead plaintiffs in the 1996 lawsuit against Giuliani that originally guaranteed First Amendment protection for street artists—the fact that $3 million buys permission for an art display is proof that “the parks are for sale to the highest bidder.”
Lederman says he has nothing against Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s project. “What I am pointing out is the sheer hypocrisy of the Bloomberg administration, the parks department, and the CPC. At the same time as they’re lying and claiming that a couple of art displays are destroying the park, they’re going to let a guy set up a 23-mile-long art display,” he says.
Although they have so far been the beneficiaries of the city’s “hypocrisy,” Jeanne-Claude and Christo believe that all artist-vendors (if not vendors who sell “art”) should have the right to display and sell their work where they wish. “You must be able to sell books and art freely without a permit. That is free speech,” Christo says. And as soon as there’s a permit, it’s not free speech anymore.
Parks Commissioner Benepe says there’s been a lot of “hysterical ranting” about free speech, “but this is a regulatory issue. We’re not trying to get artists out of the park; we’re trying to regulate commerce in the park.” Professional vendors clog up the pathways, he says. An ambulance wouldn’t be able to get through. Benepe believes Intro #160 would provide “a level playing field” for artist-vendors to compete with vendors of art for the limited space in the park. “Half of the PR misunderstanding is that vendors are hiding themselves under the banner of artists so they’re not treated like regular vendors—they pay nothing and turn public parks into outdoor bazaars.” The problem is that a permit system cannot differentiate between original artists and vendors of art and would be a tool to severely restrict the rights of both groups. When the city attempted to introduce a permit system in 1998, only 76 permits were issued.
Since writing the letter to the mayor, Jeanne-Claude doesn’t want to say any more about Intro #160. “Already our lawyers have said, ‘Why are you doing this? You will get in trouble.’ We have to do our bit to help our fellow artists, but we also have to make sure that we get the project done!”