By Catherine Revland
On March 14th, the lecture room at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South was packed with artists, attorneys, curators, art dealers, critics, and historians to hear a discussion about the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).The speakers were Federal District Court Judge Frederic Block (who spoke to the broader subject of VARA but not the 5Pointz case, as it is on appeal) and attorney Christopher J. Robinson, a former fine arts dealer and specialist in arts litigation.
I was especially interested in learning about the “maximum statutory damages” in VARA because of the angry, sometimes vociferous responses to Judge Block’s ruling in February, awarding $6.75 million in damages to 21 5Pointz artists whose work had been destroyed by real estate developer Gerald Wolkoff. Some typical complaints: “It’s his property. He can do with it whatever he wants;” “These artists paint over their own stuff all the time. It’s what they do;” and, “They always knew the building would come down.” The issue, however, was not that the building would come down, but how.
The landlord/artist relationship at 5Pointz had not always been so contentious. Since the 1970’s, Wolkoff rented studio space to artists in his crumbling Long Island City property and gave them permission to paint the premises wherever they pleased. It was a successful partnership: Wolkoff was lauded as a patron of the arts and the artists could work without fear. In 1985, six policemen were acquitted in the murder trial of Michael Stewart, who had ostensibly beaten himself to death after being arrested for spray-painting his tag on a subway wall. Here, the artists could paint legally, in a safe place.
In 2002, artist Jonathan Cohen (tag name Meres One) started a project in the building that he called 5Pointz, providing some necessary structure and his talents as an unpaid curator. Under his leadership, the place became an egalitarian environment where seasoned artists—some with international reputations—tutored newcomers, and everyone thrived on the competition.
The word “graffiti” connoted vandalism, something ugly. At 5Pointz it evolved into something different, a revolutionary art form now known by several names—urban, aerosol, or street art—and the building became a world-famous landmark. Long Island City, once a tourist no-man’s-land, now thronged with visitors who sought out 5Pointz as a vestige of the “real” New York City, before the onslaught of sterile tombstone towers.
“Vengeance Is Mine”
As the value of commissioned aerosol art went through the roof, so did property values, and it was no surprise to the artists when in August 2013, Wolkoff announced that his company, G&M Realty, was demolishing 5Pointz to build two luxury residential towers on the site, a $400 million project. What shocked the artists was his plan to complete demolition by December; they immediately explored legal options.
After seeking an injunction to protect their work under the VARA statute, Judge Block granted them a temporary restraining order that delayed demolition plans while legal actions were pending, but on November 12th, the judge lifted the restraining order, ruling that the company was within its rights to demolish 5Pointz, and that he would issue his written opinion on November 20th.
Between the 12th and the 20th of November, many things happened: On the Sunday the 17th, hundreds of artists, supporters, and people from the neighborhood held a rally around the landing dock, as the landlord had denied the artists access to the building, even though they were still legal tenants. The mood ranged from hopeful to grim. Activists moved through the crowd with petitions to the Landmarks Commission and cries of “Remember Grand Central!” Another artist later recalled, “If the building had to be demolished, at least our murals would have had the dignity to go down with the ship.” But that was not to be.
On November 3rd, while the artists’ suit was still pending, Jerry Wolkoff hired a painting crew and security detail, paying them $70,000 in cash. During the predawn hours of Tuesday, November 19th, they went to work. By Friday, they had painted over nearly every mural on 5Pointz’s exterior and interior walls. “I had tears in my eyes,” Wolkoff told New York Magazine. “All I did was the right thing, like ripping off a Band-Aid, to save them from having to suffer.”
His humanitarian gesture turned out to be slow torture. Asbestos abatement didn’t begin until the following February. Demolition began the following August. As for the artists, “We moved out our equipment and left,” said Meres One. “It was too painful to look at the building.”
Was this a willful act of destruction? Four years later, when asked at the jury trial if he would do it again, Wolkoff said yes.
The Legacy of 5Pointz
At the Arts Club gathering, Chris Robinson summed up the consequences of this tragic affair in a single sentence. Referring to the VARA statue (17 U.S. Code 113), which Wolkoff ignored, he said, “None of this would have happened if he had simply given the artists their 90-day notice, allowing them fair time to preserve their work.” Not to mention saving them from the need to raise millions of dollars for legal fees incurred during five years of litigation.
But no words were necessary that night to describe the impact of a slide show of 45 works of “recognized stature” that were destroyed by Wolkoff’s precipitous act. Seen from a distance, the murals got lost in the riotous and undefined chaos of the 5Pointz walls. Here they were projected slowly, one at a time, as the room fell silent—images that reflected the sensation of motion in early graffiti, still on wheels, rushing by, but also images that were haunting, delicate, whimsical, exciting, provocative, and sometimes just breathtakingly beautiful.
“Until you see the images up close you can’t understand how magnificent they are,” remarked fine arts attorney Dennis M. Wade. “No matter what happens next, this case has already legitimized street art.”