The Brewing Turf War over Plywood Protest Art in SoHo [PHOTOS]

Posted on: June 29th, 2020 at 5:00 am by

Photo: Eddie Panta

A turf war is brewing in the SoHo art world. To wit, who owns the art of rebellion that ensconced the commercial plywood in the aftermath of protests and looting?

SoHo looked like a toy town in pristine condition during most of the Covid-19 shutdown. For many residents, the minimalist sense of calm harkened back to the quieter days of the 1970s. But the emptiness also reflected the lack of essential businesses in the neighborhood and the number of residents who had left.

It’s clear now that this somewhat dystopian serenity was the proverbial calm before the storm. The luxury boutiques of the once-historic art district became a prime target for looters who took advantage of peaceful George Floyd protests. Indeed, it’s believed that more than a hundred stores were ransacked in the carnage. On the morning of June 1, the SoHo businesses that were not already boarded up, immediately secured their shops and plywood quickly became as hard to find as sanitizing wipes.

In the aftermath, local street artists continued where protest graffiti of the Black Lives Matter movement had left off. Soon, more slogans for BLM and the Justice for George Floyd protest appeared on the barricaded storefronts; some inspirational, others more subversive or rebellious.

By mid-June, two new ad-hoc artist groups had emerged and were actively transforming the blank plywood into more positive, elaborate art pieces. And in short time, SoHo became wrapped in the most authentic canvas it has seen in decades. Yet, by the end of the month – as the city crept towards Phase 3, and stores started to reopen – the unraveling of this public canvas turned into a controversy both on the streets and on social media.

A turf war of sorts soon broke out between two fledgling arts organizations behind the beautification of anti-looting plywood on SoHo storefronts.

Photo: Eddie Panta

The SoHo Social Impact crew staked out a stretch of Wooster Street (south of Spring Street) that included local artists Tristan Reginato and Lydia Venieri; while Art2(HEART) hosted a more public and performative event (June 20) where more than a hundred artists reportedly responded to their call to create socially conscious artwork on the fresh plywood.

Almost immediately, Art2(HEART) was criticized for overreaching because it included work of artists not associated with its group on its Instagram. Which group came first was another bone of contention, but seemed petty to most as neither had dominion over the public sphere. Further, most of the artists allegedly did not have permission from the business or building management, which confused some of those participating.

Both of these neighborhood art organizations sought imagery with an inspiring message, and basically permitted anyone to paint. The grassroots efforts had inspired a diverse array of young creatives, some of whom are residents, to volunteer and create. And with no shortage of blank plywood, the groups co-existed (for a minute). Output included original graffiti protest art, from street artists who worked anonymously and without any affiliation to a public arts organization.

Over the last two weekends in June, the streets of SoHo appeared to have an art walk again. The images these artists created attracted a fair amount of press, including a story in the New Yorker. The SoHo neighborhood had been reactivated by the art lovers, protest supporters, and curiosity seekers, who roamed the streets snapping photos.

Snapping photos of the plywood, Photo: Eddie Panta

Art2(HEART) co-founder Maxi Cohen, a longtime resident of SoHo and a multi-media artist known for her independent documentaries, had envisioned a loose-knit collective composed of friends and neighbors, and was shocked by the outpouring of support and media attention. Their initial statement included the aim of working toward “reclaiming SoHo.” However, as the city started to reopen, and the plywood started to come down, the artists scrambled to reclaim the art boards.

News of WestWood Gallery securing or rescuing art boards broke with an AP clip that showed the gallery co-owner James Cavello, in a storage unit, flipping through sheets of colorful plywood that had just come down from a SoHo store. Upon seeing the video, the artist called the gallery and demanded the return of their work. (Arrangements have been made for the return.)

As it turns out, the Bowery gallery had aligned itself with the Art2(HEART) organization to help preserve the plywood protest art for a future exhibit. But as gallerist James Cavello later explained in an Instagram post, the gallery was not actually in possession of any work.

It was, in fact, the SoHo Broadway Initiative, a business improvement district (“BID”) that was in possession of the art boards salvaged from the streets.

Executive Director of the SBI, Mark Dicus, explained to us that the BID was only in temporary possession of the artworks and was storing them in various buildings in an effort to preserve the work. Dicus clarified fifteen works had already been returned or reconnected with the artists. An additional thirty from the Broadway corridor were still in their possession, albeit with the permission of the artist.

Photo: Eddie Panta

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