I sold my Bootlegs on West 24th Street in New York's Chelsea gallery district for four years with no problems other than the occasional thunderstorm, gust of wind, or diarrhetic pigeon. I developed a good relationship with most of the gallerists on the block, many of whom bought artwork from me. In the fall of 2005, the garage that I sold my Bootlegs in front of was torn down so a new gallery building could be erected. I moved my stand across the street, in front of a plexiglass fabricator.
Although most of the powerhouse galleries were on my old side of the street, the new location offered better architecture for displaying my artwork, so I wasn’t too upset about having to move. The plexiglass fabricator was closed on Saturdays (the only day I needed to be in Chelsea) and the people living upstairs didn’t seem to mind that I was selling art in front of their building.
After a few weeks in the new location, Mike Weiss, a dealer with an eponymous gallery down the street, stopped to talk with me. He told me that he didn’t like me selling art on his side of the street, “Because it attracts people.” At first I thought he was joking -- how could attracting people to his side of the street be a bad thing? Eventually, I realized he meant that I might encourage other artists to sell their work on the street, too. He complained about the high rent he had to pay for his gallery and said it was difficult to convince collectors to pay $30,000 for a painting when some guy was selling $100 paintings outside. He told me that he would let it go that week, but not to come back. It was my understanding that artists were allowed to sell their own work on the street under first amendment “freedom of expression” protection, so it seemed like an idle threat.
The next weekend, I was back on 24th street. Mike walked by an hour so after I set up and didn’t make eye contact. A few hours later, a police cruiser arrived. The police were polite, explaining that they had better things to do with their time but they had received a complaint about “illegal vending”. I asserted my first amendment right to sell my artwork, but apparently I was missing the necessary tax ID and had to pack up for the day. The police also evicted Ryan Humphrey, another artist selling his work on 24th Street, but thankfully didn’t fine us or confiscate any of our art.
The police wouldn’t tell me who made the complaint, but it was obviously Mike Weiss. After packing up all of my artwork, I confronted him in his gallery and he admitted that he had called the police. He said that he didn’t like seeing people carrying little paintings around and that he was angry because Ryan, “gave him attitude” the week before. Mr. Weiss also threatened that if I spread the word that he had called the police, he would call them again if he saw me selling artwork anywhere - not just on his block. Well, Mike Weiss can kiss my ass. I’m letting everyone I know in the art world hear about his petty, insecure, call to 311.
If Mike Weiss is having trouble selling enough art to cover the rent for his gallery, he might want to rethink his gallery program. I could introduce him to plenty of interesting young artists showing in Williamsburg galleries who would jump at the chance to exhibit in Chelsea. He’s also welcome to close his gallery and join me on the street, rent free.