We were a bit skeptical last week when Jeannine Chanes, one of two lawyers representing the Queens-based street art collective 5Pointz, told us that her clients had a fighting chance of stopping the demolition the group’s graffiti-emblazoned warehouse headquarters with an obscure arts law. But although Judge Frederic Block declined to issue a hoped-for injunction late last week, he did grant a restraining order that freezes building owner G&M Realty’s demolition preparations—and any further painting—for 10 days, as first reported by the Long Island City Post. And by all appearances, he seems to be taking Ms. Chanes’s somewhat unorthodox arguments seriously.
To ward off G&M’s wrecking balls, Ms. Chanes trotted out a little-known and largely untested fragment of law known as the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), one clause of which allows visual artists of a particular stripe to prevent the unauthorized destruction or alteration of works installed inextricably in buildings. 5Pointz’s aerosol paintings, which cover virtually every inch of the G&M warehouse, conform perfectly to the sort of work the law was designed to protect, Ms. Chanes told us. (With the blessings of David and Gerald Wolkoff, who own G&M, 5Pointz has used the space for the last 20 years as a gallery and educational forum.) But Thomas F. Cotter, an intellectual property expert at the University of Minnesota’s law school, noted that the court might well find a way to exclude 5Pointz from VARA safeguards, lest property-owners like the Wolkoffs find themselves largely prohibited from modifying (or demolishing) their own buildings.
When we spoke with Ms. Chanes today, she attributed her initial success in great part to the sympathies and predilections of Judge Block. “He’s definitely a judge for the 99 percent,” she said. “He will stand up for the little guy and apply the law as it is written.” She acknowledged, though, that VARA’s stipulations are at first blush somewhat perplexing to standard American sensibilities: “The thing that the judge was struggling with is that this law is so counterintuitive,” she said. “The US has such longstanding regard for property rights, that it just doesn’t make sense that a law like this exists. But it does.”
Ms. Chanes likened 5Pointz’s battle with the Wolkoffs to a dispute in the 1980s over striped bass in the Hudson River—which disrupted the doomed Westway project—and the faceoff in the late 1970s between the endangered snail darter fish and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which delayed the completion of a dam for two years in the 1970s. “Although these laws are not common,” she said, “there are some precedents for a statute like this to supersede the rights of property owners.”
Unimpressed with the Wolkoffs’ arguments—which, she said, revolved largely around projected financial losses resulting from demolition delays—Ms. Chanes is optimistic that Judge Block will ultimately grant 5Pointz a more permanent injunction. However counterintuitive the act might be, she said, “the law is the law. At a certain point.”
Of course, there remains the question of whether the artists can raise enough money to buy the building—the Wolkoffs’ lawyers have suggested very plainly that they cannot—let alone maintain it. And whether, after the Wolkoffs have been dragged through the courts in recompense for their past generosity, any building owner will be foolish enough to make the same mistake in the future.