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City Reverses Policy Barring Performances in Washington Square Park

By Jill Colvin | May 11, 2012 6:28pm
Street artist Joe Mangrum makes sand paintings in public areas including Washington Square Park.
Street artist Joe Mangrum makes sand paintings in public areas including Washington Square Park.
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NEW YORK — Performers in Washington Square Park can sing a sigh of relief.

The Parks Department has reversed course on its policy banishing performances from it and other parks, following an outpouring of community support, activists say.

The policy, introduced last fall, had been used to bar musicians and other performers from performing within five feet of benches or 50 feet of fountains or monuments, such as the Washington Square Park arch — drawing outrage from artists, advocates and members of Manhattan’s Community Board 2.

But the city is has reversed course after numerous summons were dismissed.

“Generally, expressive matter vending rules do not apply to buskers and entertainers,” said a Parks Department spokesman, confirming the re-interpretation, which was first reported by the Washington Square Park blog.

Artists must still abide by other park rules, such as not blocking benches or pathways, or playing with amplified sound, the spokesman said.

The news had artists like Colin Huggins, who is known as "the crazy piano guy,” singing praise.

“It’s definitely a great feeling," said Huggins, who plays a baby grand piano in parks around the city, including Washington Square, and said he'd been slapped with nine tickets that would have cost him upwards of $6,000 dollars in fines over the past six months.

The tickets have since been dismissed.

“It was just really baffling for me to see them come and do this," he said of the crackdown.

Community Board 2 chair Brad Hoylman, who lobbied for an end to the Parks Department policy at a Greenwich Village "speak-out" in December, also praised the policy change.

"This is a excellent result for the community, park users and artistic expression," he said.

Hoylman added that he hoped the new interpretation would be enforced.

"I would urge the community to continue to monitor the situation, however, and inform the community board should the Parks Department revert to their original practice," he said.

Artist Joe Mangrum, who has been ticketed multiple times for making sand art in city's parks, also said he was pleased to hear that artists have regained some of their rights.

"I'm happy that [the Parks Department is] rolling back these rules, but they should have never created them in the first place," he said. "Public space is public space and it's meant for free use"

But Robert Lederman, a painter and printmaker, and president of the Artists’ Rights Group, which represents 2,000 artists, slammed the city for failing to extend its exemption to visual artists, who have also been slapped with thousands in fines in recent months.

“If you make a rule that visual artists have all these visual restrictions, but performance artists don’t have to do them, you’ve completely violated the 14th Amendment,” he said.

Andrea Swalec contributed reporting.