Smith on ‘Community Rights to Public Art’

5Pointz before it was whitewashed

Cathay Smith (Asst. Prof. at Montana School of Law) has published an article in the St. John’s Law Review, Community Rights to Public Art. The article surely would have generated the attention of the student editors of the St. John’s Law Review, as the 5 Pointz building, until it was demolished in 2014, was located just a few miles away from the St. John’s campus. From the abstract:

In 1932, the Rockefeller family commissioned Diego Rivera to paint an enormous mural as the centerpiece of the RCA Building lobby in Rockefeller Center in New York City. The colorful mural that Rivera painted, titled Man at the Crossroads, included images of social, political, industrial, and scientific visions of contemporary society. One night in February of 1934, the Rockefellers hired workers to chisel the mural off the wall without any warning or notice. The mural was broken into pieces before being carted away and dumped. The destruction of his mural shocked Rivera. More importantly, however, the destruction of Rivera’s mural permanently deprived the public of a significant work of public art and heritage. The public was stunned at the destruction of the mural; protesters called the Rockefellers’ act “art murder” and “cultural vandalism.” Nevertheless, the mural was the Rockefeller’s property and, despite public support for the mural, they had the legal right to destroy it. More than eight decades later, communities still face this type of loss of heritage through the destruction of public art. For instance, public outrage followed the 2014 demolition of 5 Pointz in New York, when the owner of 5 Pointz whitewashed and destroyed the 20-plus-year-old “graffiti Mecca” to make way for two new $400 million luxury high-rise apartment towers. On the opposite coast, just last year, Piedmont Avenue neighbors in Oakland were shocked when the owner of Kronnerburger Restaurant demolished a beloved community mural in connection with its construction of a new trendy burger restaurant.

Property owners generally have the right to destroy their own property. This Article argues, however, that certain property is so connected to a community’s identity that the community’s right to preserve its heritage may trump a property owner’s right to destroy. This Article explores existing, yet underutilized, legal solutions a community may use or adapt to preserve public art when that art has become a part of its cultural heritage. Finally, recognizing that preservation has its limits, and that without destruction there will be no space for creation, this Article ultimately sets forth questions communities will need to grapple with as they weigh whether and how to protect works of public art as cultural heritage.

  1. Cathay YN Smith, Community Rights to Public Art, 90 St. John’s Law Review 337 (2016).

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