Chicago Artist Fights for Right to Sell Art in Streets, Faces Felony Charge | WBEZ
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Chicago Artist Fights for Right to Sell Art in Streets, Faces Felony Charge

Have you ever bought a piece of street art? Chances are if you have, it wasn't here in Chicago. That's because street artists are hard to find downtown, thanks to a restrictive city law. WBEZ's Lynette Kalsnes reports on what that means to the cultural life of the city, and how one artist is setting out to change that.

Chris Drew is one of a group of artists who want to get art on the street here in Chicago. We'll get to him in a minute.

But first, let's take a little detour to San Francisco.

ambi: Union Square is the greatest place to be, the tourists love us.

If you're an artist in San Francisco like this guy and want to sell your artwork, you get a license, and you can set up in prime locations all over the city.

San Francisco's Cultural Affairs Director is Luis Cancel. He says his city has more than 400 street artists.

CANCEL: The street artists are one component of the cultural vibrancy of the city.

In Chicago, though, we do things differently, though we pride ourselves on being a city of the arts.

STEIN: Well, in the city, people that sell merchandise by foot are given a peddler's license.

Efrat Stein's the spokesperson for the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

That license is not so different from San Francisco. But to sell art downtown, people need another permit. It's free, but it only lasts a month, and it's only good on eight corners downtown and half are off in Grant Park.

Stein says people can re-apply, but the short timeframe is so no one monopolizes a corner.

STEIN: But I will say that we haven't had many, and that's never occurred.

Last year, no one even applied.

That process bugs the heck out of Chris Drew. He's an artist who thinks it's too restrictive, and it's making the city's art culture suffer .

DREW: The entire art scene in Chicago is stunted because most people don't go to galleries or museums to see art. Those people need to be introduced to art by artists in the street. Artists die on the vine because the street is the first opportunity for emerging artists to develop an audience.

Drew claims the whole arrangement is unconstitutional.

DREW: This is an enormous crime against our free speech rights, but one that most people don't even realize exists.

He set out to challenge the law, modeling after what artists in New York City did. They won the right to sell in the streets without a license through court battles.

Drew decided to get arrested on purpose.

ambi of street:

KALSNES: So he came here to the State Street Macy's. He brought along a videographer and a photographer. And sure enough, along came an officer who told him he was selling in an illegal place.

DREW: I told him I understood that, and that I felt it was my First Amendment right to be able to sell my art in public and I intended to continue to sell. He said if you continue to sell, I'm going to have to arrest you. I said that's fine. Do what you have to do.

KALSNES: This is the heart of the problem, as Drew sees it. He thinks the city's law is set up, so street artists are treated as a nuisance instead of a treasure.

His attorney, Mark Weinberg, agrees. He says Mayor Daley caters to store owners who generally don't like street artists or performers nearby. Weinberg says Daley wants to beautify the city. But peddlers, even street artists, aren't part of the vision.

WEINBERG: Mayor Daley has an idea of beauty which includes sort of an orderliness, you have the black wrought-iron fences, you have beautiful buildings and you have flowers in between the streets. It's a nice idea of beauty, but it's a very limited idea of beauty.

The mayor's office and the Department of Cultural Affairs either declined comment, or didn't respond at all.

But Alderman Brendan Reilly did:

REILLY: There's finite space available on our sidewalks.

His ward includes much of the downtown business district, and he says he wouldn't support changing the law to a policy like New York's.

REILLY: People already have to negotiate between street performers, folks handing out handbills. To add the sale of artwork, which of course requires a substantial amount of space on the sidewalk, next thing you know, you don't have a whole lot of space for the folks who needs the sidewalks the most, and that's the pedestrian.

Instead, Reilly suggests that artists get into a new program that offers free temporary galleries in vacant storefronts downtown. He also thinks artists could move to less congested areas near downtown or set up in parks.

But Chris Drew argues artists need to be in busy areas to make a living. He thinks artists are so rare on the streets here, they're mistaken for something else:

DREW: The public perceives anybody on the street as being a panhandler or somewhat close to that because that's all they know here in Chicago.

He contrasts Chicago with San Francisco. There, Cultural Affairs head Luis Cancel acknowledges they, too, faced a congestion issue.

CANCEL: You couldn't just have everybody decide that they could go and set up a little booth on the corners.

He says San Francisco created a program to balance the needs of artists with pedestrians and merchants. The end result is artists selling sculptures, jewelry, fiber arts and oil paintings.

CANCEL: If you want to have craftspeople that survive and live in your city, they need a place to sell, and that's probably what helps to account for such a large concentration of these craftspeople in the Bay Area.

Berkeley artist Scott Roach says he and other artists do well.

ROACH: Many of them have stopped showing in other shows because this show is so successful for them, this is all they need to do.

He says street art adds vibrancy.

ROACH: Just kind of a special feeling that this is definitely one of the happening places to be an artist in this country, and it's nice to be a part of it.

This is the kind of atmosphere Chris Drew was hoping for when he went to Macy's to challenge the city's speech permit. But there was a little problem.

DREW: I had an audio recorder in my pocket capturing the audio from my own arrest.

It ends up, that's illegal. You can't record someone without their consent; not even the police who are arresting you.

Ironically, now Drew's fighting another constitutional battle. He's facing felony eavesdropping charges. He's had to shift most of his attention to fighting the felony. But he's not given up on the street art movement that he's trying to start here.

ambi of protest

Chris Drew continues to hold regular protests.

NOTE: Jennifer Baires contributed to this report in San Francisco.

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