Columbus, Ohio USA
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Sidewalk Artists Under Scrutiny
Licensing curbs freewheeling street peddlers
By Cynthia Bent Findlay
September/October 2012 Issue

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Rick Borg in his home studio at the Milo Arts Center. Borg says that after setting up his artwork
on the sidewalk in front of the Short North Greystone building last June, he was asked to leave.
Photo © Gus Brunsman III

A summer evening’s stroll through the Short North is a chance to bask in the ambiance of the visionaries who created the neighborhood. Doors are thrown open to art galleries, and music pours out. Here and there, artists on the street display their work.

A heaping eyeful of visual arts is what you expect from the Short North. Artists were the catalyst around which the urban pioneers of the last few decades circled their wagons and revitalized the streets.

But some local artists complain that they’re being chased off of those streets, and they want to know why.

Rick Borg, a painter with a studio in the Milo Arts Center who has exhibited in galleries around the state and beyond for decades, said that on a sunny day this June, he had hung a few of his paintings out on the sidewalk near the Greystone apartments and was working on another at his easel when approached by a man in a Short North-labeled polo shirt.

It was far from the first time he’d put his art out on the sidewalk for sale, he said, but it was the first time he’d ever had a problem with it.

“He says, ‘You can’t have your art hanging here!’ I told him I’d done it maybe 50 times before, and he says, ‘Well, we’ve been cracking down since May, and we don’t allow it,’ and says something about needing a license,” Borg said.

Borg said he asked the man’s name and where he was from, but he claims the man would tell him only that he worked “down across from Skully’s” and that he would take the art down himself if Borg didn’t.

“He was pretty bold. He could have been a lot nicer about it. The thought of someone grabbing my art really made me angry, he got me riled up,” Borg said.

He assumed the man worked for the Short North Business Association – actually, now the Short North Alliance – and so he tried over the next few weeks to walk by the Alliance’s 1126 North High St. office and figure the situation out but was unable to speak with anyone about who the man was or what kind of license he needed.

A friend and fellow artist, Paul Volker (Volker has created cover art for this publication in the past), said Borg’s encounter ruffled his feathers, too, and he did a little research into city code. Volker looked up City of Columbus’ Code of Ordinances that applied to street vending (Chapter 523) and interpreted the code as exempting artists from needing a peddler’s license to sell their own work on a public sidewalk.

In fact, under a section titled “Exemptions,” Chapter 523.03 states: “This chapter shall not apply to....Individuals or organizations selling by sample only; Agricultural articles or products sold, bartered, offered or exposed for sale by their producer; Owners or their agents who sell, barter, offer or expose for sale products of their own raising; Individuals who sell handiwork where the item as a whole is produced by that individual's single effort.”

“In general my understanding was that law supports people, or I’d use the word encourages, because I’m biased – but I mean, there has to be a reason for the exemption to be in there,” said Volker.

Whatever the reasons for the exemptions, on an ordinary weekday, the SNA and the Short North Ambassadors (hired to keep the district clean and assist visitors) do not possess any authority to enforce city codes. That would be the job of the Department of Public Safety – namely, the police department.

Also, Columbus city codes did in fact exempt artists, or anyone selling goods they made or raised themselves (even cattle, as Volker claims!) from the requirement to hold a peddler’s license – at least until August.

John Angelo, director of the Short North Alliance (which oversees the Short North Ambassadors) says that’s not what the Alliance was told.

“The city has required us for years to ensure that everybody who is selling items on the sidewalk has to have a vendors license that was issued through the city. And they really do crack down on us during the Gallery Hop,” he said.

Paul Volker
Photo Darren Carlson
"What bothers me is I would have gone down to city council and presented my reasons why I don’t like this, but I never knew they were going to bring this up."

At any rate, that argument is now over, because as of September 1, artists, and anyone else wishing to sell items on city property, must obtain a commercial sales license. The $150 license lasts for one year; a four-month license is also available for $75. The city will be conducting background checks on applicants, which is part of the reason for the fee increase from the original $25 peddler’s fee, said Annie Marcusio, legislative analyst for Columbus city councilmember Michelle Mills, who sponsored the legislation.

Marcusio said the ordinance changes have been on the minds of council’s public safety and judiciary committee for some time; they were so outdated that they exempted farmers from selling livestock on the sidewalk from needing a vendors’ license.

Those producing their own art or products will still be permitted to sell from doorways or sidewalks on their own private property, or with permission of the property’s owners, she said.

“What it comes down to is a public safety issue. We’re trying to address those individuals going door to door for sales. The last thing we want to do is have someone with a criminal background knocking on your door selling items. We need to make sure there has been a proper background check – some might have had a conviction for fraud, for instance; we don’t want those people selling to you on the corner,” said Amanda Ford, assistant director for the city’s department of public safety.

Volker feels that the need for a license cuts into the freewheeling spontaneous spirit of the neighborhood, the atmosphere that fosters the arts in the first place. He observes that the Short North Business Association (again, now the Short North Alliance) has authority to charge artists and other vendors a $25 per Hop fee to set up on the public sidewalk during Gallery Hop, and he was curious to know how they got that authority.

“I don’t think there’s any evil blood going through any of this; I think everyone thinks they are doing the right thing,” Volker said. “Probably there were problems that needed to be addressed.”

In fact, said Angelo, there were dilemmas that erupted during Gallery Hop over the past decade as the event grew.

Angelo said sometime around six years ago, the SNBA was forced to get serious about working with vendors and merchants because Hop had become very crowded.

“They were getting into turf wars. One person would say, ‘I was here last Hop.’ Another would say ‘I got here before you did.’ And we had several occasions where there were almost fistfights,” Angelo said.

Vendors were setting up, blocking entrances or obstructing sidewalk clearances; vendors were setting up in front of shops selling the same merchandise as sold inside the business at a cut rate, enraging business owners who had invested with property taxes and otherwise supported the Hop.

Those problems, along with growing pains experienced by other public events such as the Pearl Alley Farmers Market downtown, have resulted in more changes to city ordinances in the form of legislation governing community markets.

Those new legislative changes take effect August 25 and finally clear up questions giving community market permit holders (such as the Short North Alliance, when their permit is finalized) authority to act as a kind of temporary landlord of public sidewalks for their events. Those permit holders are responsible for maintaining vendors lists, making sure they’re meeting public fire and health and safety requirements, obtaining liability insurance for events, and other responsibilities.

Angelo says generally, the SNA, through its ambassadors, would not monitor vendors or artists who were set up on ordinary weekdays unless they got a complaint from someone in the neighborhood, so he was surprised to hear of the incident involving Borg.

“As long as they’re set up in a way that’s respectful of the district, we’re in favor of artists having a presence on the street. If for some reason, say, they’ve brought a loud boom box or they’re impeding traffic flow, we’d ask them to address that, but our commitment is to supporting art,” Angelo said.

Local artist reaction to the new requirements (that many artists didn’t know they were exempt from before) seems mixed.

“I mean, anybody who can afford that [$150] doesn’t need to be selling on the street; they’ve got something going, I guess. And where was the input from the artists? What bothers me is, I would have gone down to city council and presented my reasons why I don’t like this, but I never knew they were going to bring this up,” Volker said.

“I’d say, yes, I understand that I need the license, but … I feel with the artwork I’d be selling it doesn’t make sense to have to go through a huge process,” said Adam Brouillette, a founding member of the arts group Couchfire Collective, former chair of the Ohio Art League, and founder of the Agora Art Fest. Brouillette helps operate a large studio in the Grandview area.

“Is this helping the city out, or deterring the city from having a vibrant arts culture?” Brouillette asks. “Conversely, I also believe artists should treat what they do as a business, and operate like one, and should be able to handle themselves in a way that they account for costs, not just rewards, of doing business. I think that’s a more reasonable way of keeping in check who is selling stuff in the community and at the same time not overburdening artists.”

Brouillette said that he trusts the Short North Alliance to represent the arts community – a difficult, highly independent bunch to organize.

Sidewalk mural artist O’Linda Jansupka said that she’s always felt the business association in the Short North has helped her career and doesn’t think a vending license would be an unreasonable burden.

“They’re trying to find a balance of how everyone can get along, and there are many difficult parties. I’ve always felt everyone was there for the greater good. For what they’re offering people who are making art, and want to get their name out in public, it’s been a great networking opportunity for me,” Jansupka said.

Borg, though, still has a bad taste in his mouth. He hasn’t brought his art out to hang on the sidewalk since the June encounter.

“The way that guy was, it felt more like ‘We don’t want you here at all unless you are going to be ours; we own you or something,’” he said.

He said he’s extremely discouraged by the code changes and isn’t sure whether he’ll apply for the sales license yet or not.

“I enjoy selling the work outside. It did help my sales too, but, really, the attitude I had was just to show it. People were entertained by it. Even the bums walking by going ‘Hey mac, like your stuff.’ Little kids, people stuck at the light. People say I love your work, lots who have no intention of buying it,” he said. “I was getting productive doing the artwork out there too, drawing, doing some painting with water-based paint… so, I don’t know.”

© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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