Top: Erica Gosich Rose painting a legal mural. Bottom: a photo by May Karp of that finished mural, for sale at StreetSpeaks. Photos courtesy of Simon Cole.
Though it probably wasn’t her intention, photographer May Karp could not have picked a better way to demonstrate just how messy it can get when street art and commercial art collide.
Her exhibit at the Moore Gallery, StreetSpeaks, featured photographs Karp had taken of legal street art and graffiti from a number of places around the world, including Toronto. Though costs of prints of the work exhibited drifted into the thousands, Karp provided no compensation or credit to the artists behind the work she photographed, nor did she seek or gain permission from them. But as she must have known as a fan of the genre for some thirty years, street artists almost always work fast, and it took less than a week for some of them to force Karp to end StreetSpeaks altogether.
Simon Cole of the Show & Tell Gallery was one of those responsible for getting Karp’s show shuttered. “I think it is great that [Karp] appreciates graffiti and documents it,” he says, “but I do have an issue with her selling the photos and not giving any sort of recognition or compensation to the artists who created the work.” Cole, who commented about the show when we first wrote about it on Torontoist, sent a cease and desist letter to the Moore Gallery last week on behalf of nine artists. As he sees it, Karp and the gallery are profiting off of work that others have created for nothing; she is “breaking the law and exploiting these artists”; “she is selling someone else’s work.”
While some post-modern art does wholly and intentionally appropriate the work of others (see Richard Prince), May Karp seems to think of StreetSpeaks as more of an archival project than anything else. It was her intention, she announced in a press release, to “preserve these amazing works from the outdoor elements, from the white-wash brigades, even from other artists who paint over them. It is now possible for artists who follow the principles of good art to come in from the outside and show their work on gallery walls.” Or, at least, have their work shown for them.
Karp’s lawyer, Andrew Bernstein, notes that the process Karp went through to make and mount the prints cost her hundreds of dollars, but allows each one to last at least seventy years. “This was intended to honour this art and these artists, and it was intended to preserve this art, which can be erased, painted over, whitewashed, all sorts of things,” says Bernstein. “She thought she was preserving it and honouring it.”
But for Cole and the artists whose work appeared in the exhibit, StreetSpeaks is appropriation, not preservation. As Allan Ryan told the Post, “I should be honoured, but also compensated if you’re going to charge that kind of a fee for this work….I went in and saw all this stuff and it’s a blatant rip off of everybody’s work. Just a straight shot of somebody’s graffiti that she’s blown up into these huge posters.” Bernstein says that the lack of credit, at least, wasn’t intended: Karp was unable to interpret the “symbols” and “underground signatures” on the pieces and simply had no idea who the artists behind them were, though she “did offer…to give credit to anyone who came forward and identified themselves as a creator.” But as the wait-and-see approach to dealing with potential copyright infringement claims often works, artists who discovered their work for sale wanted not just credit, but money. As Cole puts it, “Someone could have bought these artists’ entire catalog for the price of one of those prints [that] the Moore gallery is selling.”
Bernstein is guarded about what defense Karp could have in court if any kind of suit goes forward, but offered one example: the “provision in the [copyright] act for fair dealing for the purposes of criticism and review.” But a quick glance at Canada’s copyright act reveals that even if you accept that photographs of street art without comment or context count as criticism or review—we think that in some cases they might, and Wooster might agree—fair dealing requires naming the source of the work and crediting its creator. (A similar clause applies to news reporting, which is why CityTV got in trouble for running photographs of an attempted burglary without crediting the photographer, Joel Charlebois.)
It is undeniable that Karp’s stated goal of the exhibit—to, as Bernstein put it, “bring this art form to the gallery-going public who may not appreciate it, who may not see it in its native environment”—is admirable, even if it does totally recontextualize “street” art. But even if you accept Bernstein’s claim that Karp “wasn’t in it for the money, not even a little bit”; that “she wasn’t trying to rip anyone off”; and that, as Karp put it in a press release announcing the closure, she was “deeply saddened” and “heartbroken” by having to close up shop, it’s difficult to argue the underlying point, Cole’s whole reason for taking action: that Karp was selling prints of someone else’s work.
When Bernstein mentions artist’s rights, though, he means those of his client—specifically, Karp’s “right to express herself as an artist.” But when we asked him if Karp’s rights to express herself didn’t seem to be at odds with the rights of the street artists whose work she had photographed and was selling, Bernstein only echoed that the copyright act is full of tensions, and that, again, Karp never intended to do wrong.
Bernstein hopes that litigation won’t go ahead, that the controversy ended when StreetSpeaks did. Cole has other plans: he’s planning to head to the Moore Gallery this week to “discuss compensation for the artists whose work sold and ask for a public apology,” and has organized a fundraiser on the evening of September 25 at Charlie’s Gallery (112 Harbord Street) to bring attention to the cause, to sell prints, to auction original pieces of some of the artists whose work was photographed for StreetSpeaks—and to cover forthcoming legal fees.
Photo of the interior of Moore Gallery by Pat Young.