Artists Sue City Over Fate of Their Works at Condemned Jail Buildings

Artist Kit-Yin Snyder, whose site-specific works are slated to be removed in advance of the demolition of the two jail towers at 124 and 125 White Street, speaks at a gathering of opponents to the city's jail-building plans. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 16, 2022

Update 5/19/22: The artists' request for a prelimnary injunction against moving their artworks was denied on Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan. The judge said the plaintiffs failed to prove that perserving the work on site outweighed the public's interest in building a new jail, the Times reported. A lawyer for the artists, Emily Anderson, told the Times they would not give up. "While we are disappointed in the coutcome, after the initial temporary restraining order last week, the case is continuing."

Two prominent artists commissioned by the city to create public art for the now doomed Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown are suing the city in Federal Court over the fate of their works. 

Contractors recently started the year-and-a-half takedown of the two-building complex at 124 and 125 White Street in preparation for a 295-feet-high jail tower, part of the city’s borough-based jail plan for closing Rikers Island in 2027. The artists, Kit-Yin Snyder, 88, and Richard Haas, 86, argue in their suit that the city’s plan to remove or destroy the work violates the Visual Artists Rights Act, a provision of federal copyright law. By doing so, the pieces will be “deprived of the context in which they are situated, thus obliterating the cultural value of the artwork,” the complaint states.

A judge on May 13 issued a temporary restraining order against the city moving or destroying the work. A hearing will be held on Wednesday, May 18, when the city will be required to show why it should be allowed to proceed with its plans for the art.

Haas created the seven panels of “Immigration on the Lower East Side of New York,” installed on the second-floor facade of the north tower and slated to be demolished along with the building. His two friezes, “Judgements of Solomon and Pao Kung, are located on each end of the aerial walkway that connects the north and south towers.

Snyder’s works include “Justice—The Seven Columns of the Temple of Wisdom,” in front of the north tower, and “Justice—Solomon’s Throne” atop the aerial walkway. Her colored paver design, largely worn away after the Department of Corrections turned the plaza between the two buildings into a parking lot, depicts Chinese characters that spell “Upright and Fair.”

In an email statement, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs said “the City has worked closely with the artists on developing a plan to document, preserve, and re-install or reproduce the artworks installed in at the current facility.” A copy of Snyder’s paver design will go on a temporary wall near the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse entrance. A photograph of Haass mural will be included on the exterior of a yet-to-be-built interim structure, called a sally port, where detainees will enter the building, the spokesperson said. The firm that designs and builds the new jail will “study” how the surviving work of the two artists can be incorporated into the new jail tower, the spokesperson also noted. The art will be warehoused at Rikers Island.

The artworks were commissioned and paid for by the city as part of its Percent for Art program when the north tower, which opened in 1990, was constructed. The program stipulates that 1% of the construction budget for a new or restored city building be set aside for art as part of the project.

“I spent seven-and-a-half years building my sculpture, and I was told in a matter of weeks it’s going to come down and go to another jail, Rikers Island,” Snyder said during a news briefing with Haas on May 13. “When I heard that I was so sad to see my work going to jail. That’s pretty much what it means to me.” 

The artists, represented pro bono by the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton, are backed by Neighbors United Below Canal, a group formed three years ago to stop the city from replacing the current two buildings with what is expected to be the tallest jail in the world. In 2019, N.U.B.C. sued the city to halt its plan. It prevailed in the state’s lowest court, but was defeated on appeal. The group has led many community protests over the years, including one last month where 10 people were arrested.  Opponents claim the years of demolition and construction will be an economic and environmental disaster for the neighborhood and an act of discrimination against Asian Americans. They also argue that the two buildings could be renovated and don’t need to be demolished, with 124 White Street, the Tombs,” eligible for landmark designation.

“We thank you for your bravery, above all else,” N.U.B.C. co-founder Jan Lee told Snyder and Haas, standing with them and other opponents outside the construction fence that now separates the public from the art. “Thank you for fighting City Hall.”

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