A federal court has held that the real estate developer Jerry Wolkoff is liable for intentionally destroying 45 works of art when they were whitewashed in 2013, amounting to a total award of $6.75 million dollars. The ruling comes as a bit of a surprise given the limited success of artists under the Visual Artists Rights Act in the past.
Jerry Wolkoff purchased the vacant factory in the 1970s in Brooklyn after manufacturing had left the area. Graffiti artists asked him for permission to display their art on the building in the 1990s, and he agreed. The building then became a haven for graffitie, even a renowned attraction. An artist Jonathan Cohen, otherwise known as Meres One, started acting as a curator of the space in 2002.
By 2013 the factory had become a valuable piece of real estate, and Wolkoff had plans to demolish the site and start a new development on the. The site had been much beloved by then, and so the artists brought suit to prevent the destruction of the art. That injunction was unsuccessful, and so Wolkoff immediately whitewashed the art, a willful act that seems to have been the primary driver for Judge Block’s scathing decision:
If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully. Given the degree of difficulty in proving actual damages, a modest amount of statutory damages would probably have been more in order.
The shame of it all is that since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time. It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.
The ruling may be appealed, but the decision marks an important precedent for works of visual art and especially works of temporary art. Landscape art, graffiti, and other similar works may be impacted by the ruling.
On one hand this ruling stands as an obvious victory for the artists themselves. But taken in the broader context, will future property developers be wary about inviting graffiti artists? Perhaps street art has become so popular and ubiquitous now, that there will not be a chilling effect of future uses of derelict buildings for graffiti exhibitions like Cohen helped create.
- Cohen v. G&M Realty LP, No. 13-CV-05612(FB)(RLM), 2018 BL 46284 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 12, 2018).
- Voon, Claire, Judge Rules Developer Must Pay 5Pointz Graffiti Artists $6.7M [UPDATED] Hyperallergic (2018), https://hyperallergic.com/426658/judge-rules-developer-must-pay-5pointz-graffiti-artists-6-7m/ (last visited Feb 14, 2018).
- Emily Sullivan, New York Judge Awards $6.7 Million To 21 Graffiti Artists For Destroyed Murals NPR (2018), https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/13/585416520/new-york-judge-awards-6-7-million-to-21-graffiti-artists-for-destroyed-murals (last visited Feb 14, 2018).
- Alan Feuer, Graffiti Artists Awarded $6.7 Million for Destroyed 5Pointz Murals, The New York Times, February 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/nyregion/5pointz-graffiti-judgment.html (last visited Feb 14, 2018).