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Got a Permit for That Painting?

The city makes it easier to panhandle on downtown streets than to sell art on them.



Ah, summertime in the city. Downtown abloom with flowers and sidewalk cafes, the streets alive with folks feeling festive, and the artists at their easels, capturing the scene and ready to sell us a canvas to take home. No, wait a minute. That would be Paris, or maybe New York. The last time I was approached by somebody hawking art in downtown Chicago, it was outsider artist Lee Godie, skulking around the steps of the Art Institute—and she's been dead since 1994.

In fact, unless you're at one of those cookie-cutter annual art fairs, you're not likely to encounter artists selling their work on the street here at all. If you do, you'll probably also see a cop rapidly approaching. Street sales are illegal downtown and—at the discretion of the local alderman—in other areas as well. As a result, says artist and longtime activist Chris Drew, Chicago has no real outdoor art scene. In this aspiring global city, artists are treated like any other street vendors. They need a peddler's license—and even then, with one exception, the city center is off limits.

The exception allows for "speech peddlers." It was put into place a decade ago, after the city lost a court battle over sales of T-shirts promoting legal weed. It covers street commerce in any item with words or pictures "that predominantly communicates a non-commercial message." That could mean religious videotapes or landscape paintings or the politically charged T-shirts Drew creates. But, he says, the process is so bureaucratic and the permit so restrictive that almost no one uses it. Indeed, the city confirms that none have been issued this year.

To secure a permit you need a general peddler's license ($165 for two years) plus an application (submitted a month ahead of the first planned date of use) with photos and descriptions of the items and an explanation of their message. The permit allows the vendor one month's access to one particular corner. There are ten spots in the so-called "central district"—McCormick Place to the Chicago River and Lake Michigan to Western Avenue—designated as speech peddling zones, and no more than five peddlers can be assigned to each at a time. Drew complains that the tight regulations prevent the creation of "free open air scenes" where emerging artists who can't afford art fair entry fees would flourish. "It's censorship," he says. "The artists are being shafted and the city as a whole is losing."

Drew, who cofounded the nonprofit Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center in 1987 and runs a free screen-printing workshop there, points out that although artists can't sell their work downtown they could legally panhandle there. That's because the ACLU went to court on the panhandlers' behalf. He's convinced it'll take a court challenge to change things for artists as well, and he's been trying to gather support for that by setting up shop on city sidewalks and giving away art is speech patches he prints using a miniature screen. He tells anyone who'll listen that the peddler's license requirement amounts to prior restraint on free speech. "That's a right which is guaranteed," he emphasizes, "not a privilege."

He says he's got about 200 signatures on a sue-the-city petition, around 50 of them from artists who'd join the suit if needed. But it'll be slow going. New York artists successfully fought the Giuliani administration when it threatened restrictions on their street-art culture, he says. Here, "we not only need to sue and beat the city, but we have to create that culture."

Drew's record of his campaign can be found at This Sunday he'll be printing patches from 1 to 2:30 PM outside the Obama rally at the Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway.

It's Kapoor's Bean, the Rest of Us Just Visit It

Millennium Park's Cloud Gate is one of Chicago's most photogenic icons, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're allowed to photograph it. The city says that if you're a pro planning to cash in on the image, you'll need to drop a note to sculptor Anish Kapoor or his agent and wait for permission. Otherwise, you'll be violating his copyright.

That's what the city says. What's actually happening appears to be more like Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Photos of the beautiful blob and other Millennium Park pieces are for sale all over the Web and up and down the aisles of local art fairs.

"I get in this discussion probably once a weekend," says photographer Scott Fishman, our readers' choice for Best Emerging Artist in our June 26 Best of Chicago issue. Fishman shows his work, including his signature images of the Kapoor piece, at local art fairs and says he's regularly confronted with comments like, "I thought you couldn't take pictures of the Bean."

Park guards were hypervigilant when the sculpture was unveiled (first in 2004, and then again in 2006, after getting its wrinkles rolled out). In January 2005, Ben Joravsky reported for the Reader that they were shooing off or shaking down anyone with what looked like professional equipment, unless they had a permit. (Fishman notes that new technology has made on-site judgments about who's a pro challenging. "A small point-and-shoot camera that you can carry in your purse," he says, "can take as good a picture as I'll take with a huge SLR.") Even wedding groups were getting the boot, and word on the street was that the city wanted to monopolize commercial use of the art.

The city now says amateurs and small wedding parties are free to click away (though groups of 15 or more should register in advance). Any professional photographer with more equipment than a tripod, however, needs a permit from the Chicago Film Office. And, yes, anyone planning to sell images of Millennium Park art is supposed to get the artist's OK.

Why? Attorney Henry Kleeman, who negotiated contracts on behalf of the park's private donors, answers that while "the city has a perpetual royalty-free license," none of the artists would give up their copyright. "A commercial photographer can't walk into the Art Institute, which is a public building, and take a picture of a piece of artwork that hangs on the wall that's protected by copyright and turn it into a poster and go sell it," Kleeman says. "The same principle applies in the park."

Fishman didn't get permission to photograph the Bean, and doesn't think he needs it since his images are so abstract that people often don't recognize the source. "As an artist, I respect copyright," he says. But in this case "it's a public piece of art in a public space—a new symbol of the city. Anybody should be able to photograph it. And where do you draw the line? What's next? Can you copyright a tree in a city park or the Sears Tower?"

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