The presence of street performers, one of the defining characteristics of Washington Square Park, may dwindle this spring due to a recent change in park policy.
The expressive matter rule, originally adopted by the New York City Parks Department in June 2010, determines where and how artists can sell their art in public places. Current rules state that artists cannot sell within 50 feet of a monument or five feet from any bench or fence.
The change in ruling will now explicitly include entertainment within these parameters and define park performers who accept donations as vendors. This change will take effect May 8 and could subject performers to court summons or tickets of up to $250 for the first offense and up to $1,000 for subsequent violations.
Katie Kat — a master’s student in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development for classical voice and a frequent performer in Washington Square Park — criticized the new ruling.
“The restrictions being placed on street performers are an epidemic and damaging to the cultural health of New York City,” Kat said. “I am afraid for the future of a city known for the quality of its art.”
But according to the Parks Department, this change is merely a clarification of the preexisting rule.
“[The Parks Department] always intended that the [expressive matter] rules would apply to street performers, buskers and entertainers soliciting fees or donations,” spokesman Philip Abramson said. “Parks adopted the change to clarify this intent.”
The Parks Department initially restricted both park performers and artists after the rule was put in place. But on Dec. 19, 2011, Community Board 2 held a public hearing packed with performers and parkgoers opposing these restrictions. At this time, the Parks Department withdrew many of the summons against park performers, but not artists, because they had been “incorrectly applied,” Abramson said.
“There is no public demand to get rid of performers,” said Robert Lederman, a street performer and president of Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics. He argued that public outrage was the reason for the reversal of the unpopular policy against performers.
Lederman is currently in a lawsuit with the Parks Department over the expressive matter rule, which is under consideration by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. His claim is twofold. First, the original expressive matter rules violate the First Amendment rights of artists and performers, and second that the differences in enforcement between these two groups violate the equal protection rights of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“One of the biggest issues was that, even though the new park rule said performers had to be subject to the exact same enforcement as artists, that’s not the way the city was doing it. They were enforcing the rule against visual artists. They were not enforcing it against performers,” he explained.
Lederman has begun a petition to request Parks Commissioner Veronica White and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to repeal the restriction. So far the petition has garnered over 300 signatures.
Community Board 2 is hosting a public hearing on May 1 at the Grace Church School. Performers have said that they will continue to push for the right to busk in parks.
“I intend to be there May 8, performing,” Lederman said. “If they want to start giving out tickets, I’ll be there to receive one.”
Veronica Carchedi is city/state editor. Email her at [email protected]