Back in 2011, the owner of a block of dilapidated warehouses in Long Island City, Queens, proposed replacing thousands of square feet of graffiti murals that decorated the buildings with luxury residential towers. Three years later, the property owner went forward with the plan, and the “graffiti Mecca,” known as 5Pointz, was knocked down. But months before the demolition of the 5Pointz complex in 2014, the owner, Gerald Wolkoff, ignoring an injunction to protect the public art, ordered the murals whitewashed. The act outraged artists, who took Wolkoff to court.
Now, following a legal battle, Jake Offenhartz at The Village Voice reports that a federal judge has ruled that Wolkoff owes a consortium of 21 aerosol artists $6.75 million in compensation.
Wolkoff first began renting studio space in the warehouses to artists in the 1990s. He also gave them permission to paint murals on the walls of the buildings. After he announced his plans to redevelop the site, the artists began a campaign to save 5Pointz. They tried to raise money to buy the block and even street art luminary Banksy weighed in, arguing for its preservation. Eventually, a consortium of artists filed an injunction against Wolkoff under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which gives artists rights to protect their public art or art commissioned for things like building projects. The court said it would issue an opinion in eight days time, but it was during that interim that Wolkoff sent in the paint squad to whitewash the murals.
The artists took Wolkoff to court, and the resulting decision was announced Monday. In judge Frederic Block's ruling, he said that 45 works at 5Pointz should have been protected under VARA and levied the maximum fine against the property owner. “Wolkoff’s precipitous conduct ... was an act of pure pique and revenge for the nerve of the plaintiffs to sue to attempt to prevent the destruction of their art,” Block writes in the decision. “The shame of it all is that since 5 Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction, the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time. It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.”
Eric Baum, the attorney for the 21 artists, tells Offenhartz they are satisfied with the ruling. “The graffiti artists are elated by the court’s decision in this case. All of the artists at 5Pointz, led by their curator Jonathan Cohen, are professional artists who have spent their lives mastering the techniques necessary to create this art. Their art should be cherished, not destroyed.”
In an email to Eileen Kinsella at artnet news Cohen argues that the ruling legitimizes aerosol art as a medium worthy of protection. “5Pointz was its temple, though it can never be replaced, this judgement is a monumental step for our culture and our art form,” he says. “Judge Block’s decision will change the art form perception for generations to come.”
But Offenhartz reports that the decision could also spell trouble for public art. It could lead developers to avoid commissioning public art or could lead to artists being forced to sign away their rights of protection. “If I’m a landlord who reads this, the first thing I’m now doing is getting artists to waive VARA, which in the end run could hurt artists and the power of VARA,” Philippa Loengard, deputy director at the Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School, tells him.
This is not the only recent case that is bringing VARA into the spotlight. The city of Palo Alto, California, wants to remove a public sculpture called “Digital DNA,” a giant egg made Styrofoam, fiberglass, circuit boards and keyboards, that was installed in a public square 13 years ago. As Kinsella reports in a separate story at artnet news, the city is arguing that the work is not durable enough for outdoor display and wants the egg’s artist, Adriana Varella, to remove it. Varella, meanwhile, claims removing the work would violate her rights under VARA since the sculpture has become “a beloved landmark.” She continues, “The moment that the sculpture is removed, it will be destroyed, because it cannot be what it is anywhere else.”
In other cases, VARA has allowed artists to sue when their work has been modified or damaged, reworked by another artists, prevented sales of artwork after it has been damaged or mutilated, and also established protections for incomplete artworks.