After seven years, the street artists who sued the owner of the 5Pointz complex finally won their case on the strength of the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act. The big triumph came this week when the US Supreme Court denied the request of 5Pointz owner Gerard Wolkoff of G&M Realty for a reassessment of the February 2018 ruling of the New York judge who ordered Wolkoff to pay $6.75 million fine for destroying the artworks.
Being the highest appeals court of the land, developer Gerard Wolkoff can no longer avoid paying the $6.75 fine to 21 Queens street artists. According to Eric Baum, the lawyer who represented the artists, the Supreme Court’s decision uphold the acceptance of graffitis as works of art, worthy of appreciation and preservation. It cannot be destroyed if it was made with prior permission. Public murals are just as important as the art pieces displayed inside museums and is also protected by the federal law, specifically the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act a.k.a.VARA .
The outcome of the trial brings relief to artists and art lovers alike as it guarantees respect and protection for future graffiti artworks. Although there have been similar cases in the past, the lawsuits filed by artists who fought for their rights, hardly ever made it to a court trial. Mainly because the disputes were resolved privately via extrajudicial settlement.
Background Info about the VARA Case Filed vs. Gerald Wolkoff
This case dates back to 2002 when Gerald “Jerry” Wolkoff, a developer and owner of the warehouse that was later called 5Points, gave Jonathan Cohen permission to use as space for street art exhibits. Located in Queens, New York City, Cohen, had transformed the 200,000 square foot building complex into an art space and renamed it “5Pointz.” The arrangement lasted for a decade as the space had gained fame; whilst attracting lots of locals, artists and tourists.
In 2013, Wolkoff gave notice to Cohen and other artists about his intention of demolishing the warehouse complex to make way for his plans of turning the space into a rental complex. Wolkoff obtained a permit from the City Planning Commision(CPC) while he gave the artists 4 months to vacate 5Pointz. .
This led Cohen and other artists to file for a restraining order based on the provisions of VARA. Although the artists were able to obtain restraining orders twice, the last judge who decided on the artist’s third petition for a restraining order denied their request. Since the restraining order was lifted, Wolkoff immediately had the premises whitewashed without notifying Cohen and his group, and as a result had effectively destroyed the graffiti artworks.
Subsequently the group filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District NY Court and won the case. The EDNY judge ordered Wolkoff to pay the artists $6.75 million in fines. Although, Wolkoff’s lawyers subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration with the U.S. Appeals Court, the said court later came out with a decision in February 2020 upholding the NY federal judge’s ruling.
February 20, 2020 has been marked in legal art history as the day that street art was affirmed as “a major category of contemporary art. The affirmation was strengthened by the Supreme Court’s ruling Last October 07, 2020 when it denied Wolkoff lawyers a chance to appeal the long-standing case.