In 1994, a crackdown by New York City police on illegal street peddling on Soho’s narrow, crowded sidewalks resulted in sellers of paintings and photographs being hauled in by the dragnet. Since the Soho Alliance, a volunteer community group, draws its members from the artist residents of Soho, we felt a need to find a solution that would keep our sidewalks passable and free, yet allow some venue for people to sell their handmade merchandise without fear of being issued a violation by the police. City Council hearings were held last year by council member Kathryn Freed to find such a solution. Members of the Soho Alliance worked hard at securing public park-space, city-owned sites, and nonprofit cooperative galleries where the street people could sell their works.

Unfortunately for both the street art dealers and Soho residents, these efforts were derailed by one megalomaniac vendor, Robert Lederman, who formed a committee of one, crowned himself its president, and claimed to represent the street people. He mounted a smear campaign against council member Freed and the Soho Alliance, who were the only people working for an equitable solution to the arrest of sidewalk art dealers and the confiscation of their works. The article in the August issue of Chronicles was part of that campaign. Notice that the writer, Ann Sandhorst, in her puff piece on Lederman, failed to disclose the fact that she is Mr. Lederman’s girlfriend and business colleague, hardly an objective journalist.

Lederman, in an attempt to rise from obscurity and garner donations for himself, initiated a lawsuit against New York City, claiming that First Amendment guarantees of free speech included his being able to peddle artistic merchandise on crowded public sidewalks without the required street-vending licenses or the collection of city sales tax.

Presented with this anarchic approach to a serious public safety question, federal judge Miriam Cedarbaum recognized the inherent problems in unregulated street art sales. She agreed that the First Amendment guaranteed the right of artistic free expression and the public display of art. She also agreed that the First Amendment may protect the unlicensed sale of art that has a clear and overt political message. However, when it came to the question of unlicensed and unregulated sale of nondescript paintings and photos on public sidewalks and private buildings, Judge Cedarbaum clearly was unreceptive to the street art dealers’ arguments for First Amendment protections. “Because some aspects of art are protected all of the time by the First Amendment, it does not mean that all aspects of art are protected all of the time,” she declared. The judge indicated that she considered undistinguished prints and paintings as general merchandise, to be regulated as such. Smearing oil on canvas does not make one an artist. A certain amount of professional skill, training, knowledge, education, peer recognition, and creativity are the standard hallmarks in determining artistic talent. There are an estimated 100,000 artists m New York. Do all of them have the right to peddle in front of my home without regulation?

A written decision from the judge is expected soon. However, any attempt to find a just solution to the problem is stalled, due to the fact that any legislation which seeks to find a suitable location for the artists to sell from legally has been blocked until this frivolous lawsuit of Lederman’s is concluded, since the city is a party to it. Everyone’s hands are tied by his selfish legal maneuvering.

In the meantime, the judge has said Lederman is no longer subject to arrest while his suit is being adjudicated. But Lederman encourages other artists to sell on the street, knowing full well that they will be arrested and that their artwork will be confiscated, while he remains safe from arrest and prosecution. Thus he acquires further publicity and donations, while cynically sacrificing artists as cannon fodder for his own ambitions. It is no wonder that he was characterized in a recent New York magazine article as a “looney, a wacko . . . suffering from a persecution complex.”

        —Sean Sweeney
Director, Soho Alliance
New York, NY


Ann Sandhorst Replies:

The landlord/artists of the Soho Alliance are an embarrassment to the artists of Soho. Sean Sweeney’s letter is factually incorrect in all of its points. Space considerations allow me to respond to only a few.

Police officials point directly to Ms. Freed and her alliance as the source of political pressure to arrest artists displaying on Soho’s streets. Sweeney characteristically projects his own misunderstanding of First Amendment issues onto federal judge Cedarbaum. This June, the United States Supreme Court stated, “The Constitution looks beyond written or spoken words as mediums of expression . . . a narrow, succinctly articulable message is not a condition of constitutional protection, which if confined to expressions conveying a ‘particularized message’ would never reach the: unquestionably shielded paintings of Jackson Pollack.” About 300 skilled and highly talented artists presently display and sell their own original art along New York City’s 800 miles of public streets. Robert Lederman was elected by them to help defend their right to freedom of expression. Rather than face the constitutional issues, Sweeney, Freed, and their alliance attack Lederman as a “megalomaniac” and characterize artists displaying their own works as “art dealers” hawking “merchandise. ” Numerous artists besides Lederman are plaintiffs in the same federal suit and are protected by the same restraining order. New York City’s vending ordinance already exempts anyone selling First Amendment-protected material, including comic hooks, baseball cards, and incense, from the licensing requirement.