Riverside Market Art
Last week, a bit of a brouhaha erupted over the art project that Seward Neighborhood Group and Seward Redesign had put together on the vacant Riverside Market. (See past posts for more information on the planning process for the redevelopment of this site.)
The project's goal was to cover the large, blank walls that had increasingly become graffiti magnets with public art. The artists were each given a portion of the wall to work in, and their finished products were striking and, as art often is, controversial.
My office heard from the City's Solid Waste and Recycling (SW&R) department that they had received numerous complaints through the City's 311 program about graffiti on the site. Unless the owner of the property agreed to cover the 'graffiti', it would be covered by a City crew.
My office forwarded this information to SNG and Redesign to alert them to the possibility that the murals might be covered, and the response was immediate and unequivocal: the murals are a public art project, not graffiti.
It took some effort to convince our diligent SW&R folks to accept this. It's complicated. The aesthetic style of much of the art is definitely in the 'graffiti' mold. (Interestingly, one of the "tags" that the City documented read "Seward Art Crawl" - clearly an authorized statement).
Add to this the fact that some of the artwork on Riverside Market is done by individuals who have done unauthorized graffiti vandalism elsewhere. Another complicating factor is that there were clearly some unauthorized tags on the building, though how many is disputed. Lastly, the ownership of the building is in flux (Seward Redesign has a purchase agreement with the current owners, but the City does not consider that legal authority).
I heard from quite a few Seward neighbors about this issue, almost all of whom opposed any City "cleanup" of the art. A few wrote that, though the art itself isn't their visual cup of tea, they support the right of the artists to express themselves and, as importantly, the right of the neighborhood to organize public art projects.
My position was this: public art, even if in a "graffiti" style, is not graffiti unless it is unauthorized. The City should not be an arbiter of aesthetics. Therefore, those who control the site may allow people - even people known as destructive taggers, if that's their whim - to do public art without City intervention. However, those who control the site (in this case, that de facto means SNG and Redesign) must keep it clear of unauthorized tags, so as not to allow it to become a free-for-all.
Still, some neighbors continue to be concerned. Yesterday I heard that some neighbors who live in a High rise buildings in the area are offended by some painting on the roof that is not visible from the street level. Just today I received a call from an area business person who is concerned that the existence of this art has lead to an increase in unauthorized graffiti elsewhere and may discourage some people from buying property or doing other business in the neighborhood.
Clearly, this is a instance where there is not agreement among neighbors. Ultimately, the best solution will be realized (soon, hopefully) when the now-vacant property is redeveloped.