The Portland street art debate gets ugly

It takes guts to be an artist, to devote time and talent to making artwork and putting it in front of the public, where it’s subject to criticism (constructive and otherwise) or, worse, indifference. I admire that kind of courage.

It requires a different figurative body part to be a street artist, to decide that the best way to get your work before the public is to literally put it in front of people by setting up a table on a busy downtown sidewalk. But as Portland officials reconsider the rules regulating street art, and as street artists become increasingly defensive, self-righteous and dismissive in response, these artists begin to resemble a third body part located in that general area, and my admiration turns to animosity.

City Hall has been wrestling with this issue for more than a decade. In 2005, the City Council attempted to clarify the rules by allowing musicians, performers and visual artists to make and sell their work on sidewalks as long as they left at least 4 feet unobstructed for pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.

This compromise worked well until about two years ago when the proliferation of artists selling their wares in the Old Port — especially on the stretch of sidewalk in front of the Maine State Pier, where cruise-ship passengers disembark — prompted complaints from shop owners and other citizens. City staff determined that some street vendors were stretching the definition of art to the breaking point by selling goods they did not make by hand.

So last year, councilors waded back into the murky issues of what art is and how the right of free speech meshes with the rights of business owners. As is typical of city government, a task force was formed that promptly tied itself into knots debating dumb ideas like a free, but mandatory, street-art registry, and buffer zones between retail businesses and artists’ tables. Complex maps were drawn. Petition signatures were gathered and submitted by both sides. The local chapter of the ACLU threatened legal action, again.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric and anger ramped up. Last month, my friend Nancy Lawrence — proprietor of Portmanteau, an artisan clothing and accessory shop on Wharf Street — gathered the signatures of fellow Old Port shopkeepers on a petition in support of the task force’s recommendations. The manager at Company C, a home furnishings business on Commercial Street, kicked Lawrence out of her shop, claiming that “by soliciting [signatures] in her store I was just like the street vendors,” Lawrence wrote on Facebook. “[S]he asked me to leave just as she asks the vendors to leave when they set up in front of the business. Of course if the task force recommendations fail, she will no longer have the right to ask the vendors to leave.”

In mid-February, the Portland Press Herald published an editorial slamming the idea of a street-artist registry, claiming such a system would “tell the world that Portland is not a place that values free expression.” The most popular comment beneath the editorial online was the one in which a poster named Caroline Evans asserted that shop owners who resent the competition street artists generate “have only themselves to blame.”

“A nasty, miserable crank who gets all bent out of shape over nothing is going to have problems dealing with customers,” Evans wrote. She goes on to suggest that bankers and wholesalers should stop doing business with shops whose owners speak out because they are “probably doomed businesses run by incompetents.”

Evans is, of course, dead wrong. Street artists who display and sell their work in front of retail businesses absolutely do constitute unfair competition. They pay no rent and compete for the same customers while blocking shop windows and often making it a hassle to navigate the sidewalk and enter stores. As I’ve noted before, the 4-foot rule routinely becomes meaningless as soon as someone stops in front of an artist’s table to gawk at their wares.

I’m all for art, but I fail to see why street artists should be exempt from the rules governing the sale of everything else. If you want to use public property to conduct your private business, get a permit to do so, just like the organizers of the annual arts festivals on our sidewalks and in our parks are required to do.

Common sense and courtesy can go a long way toward making this a non-issue again. Demonizing shopkeepers who have legitimate concerns — many of whom, by the way, sell the work of local artists in their stores — is a big step in the wrong direction.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.