By Andrew Webster
Imagine John Singer Sargent getting arrested for painting a Venetian scene, or Albert Bierstadt being fined for mentioning to someone that he sells his work, while in a wilderness area. These days, it might happen. Lately, plein air painters are discovering that working on public land can get you in trouble with the law. The newest spot to limit the freedom of plein air painters is a Florida town known for supporting artists: Winter Park.
Winter Park recently criminalized painting in designated areas of its downtown, evidently as a way of keeping street musicians from discouraging tourists from spending their dollars in the business district. When a similar ban on street musicians was implemented in St. Augustine, Florida, a court ruled that it was a matter of free speech, and that painters were exercising their right to free speech when painting en plein air as well. The St. Augustine ban was thus extended to painters, closing off some of the most scenic and historical spots from plein air painters. Winter Park’s mayor, city manager, and city council have evidently structured their ordinance with the St. Augustine prohibition in mind.
Artists in the area are less than enthused. The town is on the radar of regional plein air painters in large part because of the Winter Park Paintout, an event associated with the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden. The ordinance grants an exemption for this event, but folks at the museum — strong allies of local plein air painters — are not placated by this exemption, and local artists are mobilizing to fight the ordinance, or at least the inclusion of painters in the ban.
According to Randy Knight, the city manager of Winter Park, “Section 70-10(d)(2) of the new ordinance states that ‘Street performers may perform in the public performance zone(s) which includes the entirety of Central Park and such other public performance zone(s) as are designated by the City Manager or his or her designee.’ So, any artist whose subject matter requires him or her to be set up in an otherwise prohibited public area can request that area to be temporarily designated a Public Performance Zone. We will look at the location and if it can be utilized without unduly restricting pedestrian or vehicular traffic or creating any of the other objectionable issues discussed in the ordinance, we will permit it on a temporary basis. This would only apply to ‘street performances where the specific location is critical to the performance’ such as an artist painting a specific subject matter in the Prohibited Public Area.”
Orlando artist Stephen Bach addresses that notion succinctly. “So we find the spot, apply for a permit, and wait a couple of days — or a week — and if they approve we can come back? Who knows, maybe there will be good light then, right?” he says.
Bach started a Facebook page titled Illegal Paintings of Park Avenue to highlight the issue and share some of the work painters have created in the area in the past. Bach can’t recall hearing of any complaints about painters causing a problem in Winter Park, and he notes that plein air artists are uniformly respectful of property and cognizant of the space their easels and persons occupy in any situation.
Several artists discussing the ordinance on Facebook said they would abandon Winter Park in the face of this ban. Others preferred to remind city officials and merchants about the value of what plein air painters do in charming tourists, illustrating the beauty of the town, and helping make the area seem alive with the arts. Forget the insult perceived by a few of equating a plein air painter with a balloon artist hustling for some bucks, say some; this ban doesn’t make sound financial sense for a town that has benefited from visual artists working on location.
“Banning artists from recording present-day historical sights hurts tourism,” states Morgan Samuel Price. “Personally I have had many fans e-mail or even write letters who see these scenes and wish they could visit or live here.”
Rumors are that the next city to criminalize plein air painting in certain areas will be Asheville, North Carolina. As in St. Augustine and in Winter Park, it starts with dissatisfaction with the behavior of music buskers. Plein air painters get caught in the middle, and towns don’t seem to care much about that. “This is ridiculous, and no one in Winter Park is considering the consequences of the city ordinance,” says Price. “This can happen anywhere.”