Demolition for prison can go ahead, judge rules in lawsuit filed by artists
A judge on Wednesday refused to halt the demolition of the Manhattan detention complex in Chinatown, during a hearing in a lawsuit brought by two artists whose works could be moved or demolished.
The artists had filed a lawsuit against New York City under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, with the support of a local group, Neighbors United Below Canal, whose members oppose the construction project. a new prison on this site. The artists had obtained a temporary restraining order on Friday and were seeking a preliminary injunction or emergency assistance.
The plaintiffs, Kit-Yin Snyder and Richard Haas, said in their complaint that even moving the artworks would compromise their artistic vision, claiming that “the struggle of immigrants and the desire for justice that are represented in the artworks will lose their value “.
City officials plan to temporarily move some of Snyder’s artwork to a facility on Rikers Island, but will have to destroy other pieces of his art, as well as the Haas murals, which are in the process of being demolished. The administrators offered to reproduce the murals in the new prison or in another location.
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the request for a preliminary injunction during a hearing on Wednesday, saying the plaintiffs had failed to prove that the preservation of the works outweighed the public interest in building the new jail.
The trial is still active.
“While we are disappointed with the outcome, following the granting of the initial temporary restraining order last week, the matter is continuing,” Emily Anderson, the artists’ attorney, said by telephone, “and we will continue to fight for the rights of artists and the community.
The New York City Legal Department said in a statement: “We are delighted that the judge agreed that the requested emergency assistance was not justified to prevent this vital project from serving the public interest and that the artists are not likely to prevail in the case under underlying.
Snyder and Haas said in the lawsuit that their artwork was part of a plan for reconciliation between the city and neighborhood residents when the detention complex was approved in the 1980s. (They completed their installation of the art in 1992.) Snyder designed sculptures, “The Seven Columns of the Temple of Wisdom”; a cobblestone pattern, “Upright”; and a chair symbolizing Solomon’s biblical throne that sits atop a bridge connecting the complex’s two towers. Haas painted seven murals on the building which formed a story of immigration and created a frieze nearby, “The Judgments of Solomon and Pao Kung”.
“I’m very disappointed,” Snyder said of the judge’s decision, adding, “Moving my works to Rikers Island, from my perspective, is like putting my works in jail.”
Ryan Max, spokesman for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, said in a statement that “after working in good faith with the artists for many months, we believe we have reached agreements with both of them.”
He added: “With a professional conservator, the city has taken careful steps to preserve and document the work.”
The Visual Artists Rights Act has been used to protect public art of “recognized stature” created on the property of others. The law was invoked in a case involving the Queens warehouse known as 5Pointz, where demolition began in 2015 to make way for new condominiums. It ended with a federal judge ruling that a private developer should pay $6.75 million in fines for destroying the works of 21 graffiti artists.
In January, a painting by Faith Ringgold was moved from Rikers to the Brooklyn Museum of Art due to the impending closure of the Rikers prison complex, leaving artists wondering why their works should be moved there. (In 2019, the city council voted to close the struggling prison and build four smaller prisons scattered across the five boroughs by 2026.)
Some Chinatown residents see a parallel between the plight of artists and the city’s decision to move forward with a new jail despite local opposition — members of Neighbors United Below Canal had connected Snyder and Haas with lawyers from Sheppard Mullin, which represents the artists.
“The rights of our community have been violated,” said Jan Lee, one of the founders of Neighbors United Below Canal.