Artists Arrested During Protest Outside Metropolitan
Museum Of Art

by Robert Lederman, President of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics).

More than fifty police officers from numerous Manhattan Precincts and a large contingent of Parks Enforcement officers were called into action yesterday as the Parks Department attempted day one of enforcing an artist permit system in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Members of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics) set up their art displays in defiance of a block long police barrier and began a protest that lasted from eight A.M. until six P.M.

By nine A.M. the police had begun confiscating original art, stuffing it into black plastic garbage bags and issuing summonses ranging from two hundred to one thousand dollars to the artists. More than 100 works of art were confiscated from the sixteen artists who received summonses. Works of art were ipped out of artists' hands and torn out of closed portfolios and displays by Parks Enforcement officers and uniformed police.

The police arrived on the scene in N.Y.P.D. vans at least one of which bore the logo, Donated by The Central Park Conservancy. The confiscations and summonses arbitrarily stopped as soon as two television news crews and four newspaper reporters arrived on the scene at 10 A.M.

The artists, many of whom are immigrants and political refugees from China, the former Soviet Union and various Latin American dictatorships, made speeches in their native languages about freedom of expression, describing it as the main reason they came to America. The police were verbally confronted by numerous local residents and visitors to the museum including a German tourist who likened the police action to those of the Gestapo in Nazi Germany.

A.R.T.I.S.T. President Robert Lederman was arrested after he used a piece of chalk to write, Giuliani=Police State and God Bless America on the sidewalk in front of the police barricades. As the police attempted to drag Lederman across Fifth Avenue to a waiting police car approximately 100 artists surged over the barricades and swarmed around the police. As Lederman, 47 was handcuffed and forced into the car artists surrounded the police car and began chanting, let him go. Other artists laid down in front of the car and prevented it from leaving. After a few minutes the police unhandcuffed Lederman on the condition that he calm the angry crowd. Lederman then asked the artists if they were willing to give up their rights to which they loudly responded no. Lederman led the artists back across Fifth Avenue and into the barricades where they began chanting Artist Power. Four police and Parks Enforcement officers then re-arrested Lederman and charged him with inciting a riot, unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct. One other protester, Antonio La Russia 27, an employee of the museum, was charged along with Lederman with defacement of property with chalk. Two artists, Mitchell Balmuth, 51 and Aki Davis were charged with disorderly conduct and inciting a riot.

Lederman says the Parks Department is acting in contempt of court, referring to a 1996 Federal Court ruling which said that based on the First Amendment's protection of speech, artists need no license or permit to create, display or sell paintings, photographs, limited edition prints or sculptures on public property. The Parks Department was a named defendant in the case along with Mayor Giuliani and the N.Y.P.D.

Parks Department Commissioner Henry Stern is quoted in a 2/26/98 Newsday article as saying that, "These are extremely valuable spaces, and people who sell hot dogs there pay $150,000 a year for the privilege and may not like having to set up next to an artist who is there for free". Lederman calls that the main issue. "It's a matter of $150,000 to sell hot dogs vs. free speech".

The Metropolitan Museum's President, William Leurs and Director, Phillipe de Montebello issued a joint statement last Friday distancing themselves from the Parks Departments' policy while declining to take any action to prevent what they described as the planned arrests and confiscations of art. On Friday police officers went into the museum for twenty minutes and then arrested Lederman for writing Stop Harassing Artists with chalk on the sidewalk in front of the museum.

On Sunday, as soon as the art confiscations began, artists began handing out leaflets with a penny taped to it, advising museum goers that the Met didn't care about artists and that to support their protest visitors should pay only one cent admission. The Met receives City funds and is located on City property, making their suggested eight dollar admission voluntary, and admission possible for as little as one cent. More than 5,000 of the leaflets were distributed on Sunday in what the artists promise to be an ongoing protest. The Metropolitan Museum was the only major New York City art museum that refused to support the artists in their lawsuit. According to Lederman the museum has so far also refused to issue a statement supporting artists' First Amendment rights on public property or the decision in their Federal lawsuit, granting them full First Amendment protection.

For more info, contact: A.R.T.I.S.T. Ph: (718) 369-2111 or (212) 561-0877; Email ; Web site Read the 2nd circuit ruling at our web site.

Other contact info:

Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern (212) 360-1305, Thomas Rozinski, General Counsel Parks Department (212) 360-1314 William Leurs, President Metropolitan Museum of Art (212) 570-3900, Ashton Hawkins, Legal Counsel Metropolitan Museum of Art (212) 570-3936, Central Park Conservancy (212) 315-0385

Also see NY Times 3/2/98 Metro section B1; Newsday 3/2/98 pgA7; Village Voice 2/24/98 pg 57.