PORTLAND – A city task force is recommending tightening the rules for street artists, including banning them in Bell Buoy Park – a hot spot during cruise ship season.
While city staff had hoped for more guidance about who can and can’t set up a sidewalk stand, however, the task force decided not to redefine what constitutes art in city code.
The Street Artist Task Force recommends prohibiting street artists from setting up tables within 10 feet of an existing, non-food retailer and on sidewalks that are less than 8 feet wide.
The task force also wants artists to register at City Hall — at no cost — and display a sticker on their tables. Each artist will be given a copy of the rules upon registering.
The proposed rules are designed to improve public safety while protecting bricks-and-mortar merchants, said City Councilor Edward Suslovic.
Only artists who fit the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of art will be allowed to set up stands. According to city code, works of art protected by the First Amendment include “expressive items such as paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures” as well as performance art.
Task force chairwoman Jennifer Hutchins said the group wanted to keep the definition of art as liberal as possible. At the same time, she said, selling someone else’s products is prohibited.
“There is nothing in the street-artist rules that indicates you can sell something you didn’t make,” Hutchins said.
The task force recommended banning art vendors from Bell Buoy Park near the Casco Bay Lines terminal, citing safety concerns for pedestrians, Suslovic said.
“It’s such a heavily traveled pedestrian point, especially for the ferry passengers,” he said. Vendors will “be allowed to set-up on the sidewalk on either side of Bell Buoy Park, but not right in Bell Buoy Park.”
The pushcart merchants have become a focus of conflict in the city’s Old Port. More than 60 businesses have signed a petition asking the city to crack down on street vendors.
Ryan Harding, who manages Ports of Call, a gift shop on Commercial Street, told the Press Herald in October that vendors block pedestrian traffic. Unlike the merchants, they don’t pay any taxes or fees, he said.
Others retailers have complained that the vendors create a chaotic environment.
The task force has been monitoring street artists for about a year, after a city attorney began telling certain vendors, such as crafters, that their items didn’t fit the legal definition of art.
The arts and crafts community packed the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall last fall to push back, saying the lawyer’s definition was too narrow.
On Wednesday, Lian Glover was one of two artisans set up at the Monument Square Farmer’s Market and bundled against the 31-degree air. She was concerned that the new rules ultimately could be too restrictive and wondered whether the city would think that her hand-knitted hats were art.
“What I see up here,” said Glover pointing to her head, “is going to come out. People see my hats and say they’re beautiful. These are my art.”
Photographer Anna Karlina, who was set up near Monument Square on Wednesday, supports limits on table size and efforts to keep sidewalks passable. But she is also worried about the restrictiveness of the proposed 8-foot sidewalk rule and the 10-foot buffer from retailers.
“I think there’s enough room for everybody,” Karlina said. “I think everybody ought to work together to make the city more appealing.”
Last summer, the city concentrated on educating artists about the city code, which requires products to be handmade and limits displays to 12 square feet — including artist and chair — while leaving a 4-foot-wide pathway for pedestrians.
Three artists were issued four summonses last summer for having tables that exceeded the size standard in Bell Buoy Park, Deering Oaks park and on Commercial Street, said Trish McAllister, the city’s neighborhood prosecutor. Each was levied a $50 fine, she said.
“All the artists who were issued summonses had been warned first, and given a copy of the rules,” McAllister said. “When the enforcement officers went back later they were still operating with oversized tables or displays.”
While the city mostly concentrated on educating artists about size limits last summer, Hutchinson said code enforcement officers will be watching for products that are not made by the person selling them and so do not qualify as street art.
“It is my understanding that, next year, a code enforcement officer will be telling people with (products bearing) a sticker that says ‘Made in China’ to get out,” she said.
Task force member Jessica Tomlinson, the spokesperson for the Maine College of Art, said the new registration requirement will allow the city to better educate artists about any new rule that is implemented.
“The more that street artists follow the rules the less we will need to continually alter them,” Tomlinson said. “Quite honestly, there are a few bad apples that are spoiling it for the rest.”
Tomlinson said she understand the complaints from brick-and-mortar store owners about sidewalk congestion and competition from people reselling items they didn’t make.
But she is also concerned that the new limit on sidewalks and the buffer in front of retail stores could push artists out of the Old Port.
“I hope we can come up with a win-win situation with the least amount of restrictions as possible,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson said an analysis of which sidewalks are 8 feet wide or greater should be done before the rules go to the council.
The new rules will be taken up by the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee in January, which could send a formal recommendation to the full council in February, Suslovic said.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: