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Demolition for Jail Can Go Forward, Judge Rules in a Suit Brought by Artists

Demolition for Jail Can Go Forward, Judge Rules in a Suit Brought by Artists

A judge declined to halt the demolition at the Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown on Wednesday, at a hearing in a lawsuit brought by two artists whose works there may be moved or demolished.

The artists had filed the lawsuit against New York City under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, with support from a local group, Neighbors United Below Canal, whose members are opposed to plans to build a new jail on that site. The artists had been granted a temporary restraining order on Friday and were seeking a preliminary injunction, or emergency relief.

The plaintiffs, Kit-Yin Snyder and Richard Haas, said in their complaint that even relocating the artworks would compromise their artistic vision, saying that “the immigrant struggle and wish for justice that are depicted in the works will lose their value.”

City officials have a plan to temporarily relocate some of the artwork by Snyder to a facility on Rikers Island, but will need to destroy other pieces of her art, as well as the murals by Haas, that are in the path of demolition. Administrators have proposed reproducing the murals at the new jail facility or an alternate location.

Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the request for a preliminary injunction at a hearing on Wednesday, saying that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the artworks’ conservation outweighed the public interest in constructing the new jail.

The lawsuit is still active.

“While we are disappointed in the outcome, after the grant of the initial temporary restraining order last week, the case is continuing,” Emily Anderson, a lawyer for the artists, said by phone, “and we will continue to fight for the rights of the artists and the community.”

The New York City Law Department said in a statement, We’re pleased the judge agreed the emergency relief requested was not warranted to stop this vital project serving the public interest and that the artists are not likely to prevail in the underlying case.”

Snyder and Haas said in the lawsuit that their artworks were part of a reconciliation plan between the city and neighborhood residents when the detention complex was approved in the 1980s. (They completed their installation of the art in 1992.) Snyder designed sculptures, “The Seven Columns of the Temple of Wisdom”; a paving stone design, “Upright”; and a chair symbolizing the biblical throne of Solomon that is atop a bridge joining the complex’s two towers. Haas painted seven murals onto the building that formed a history of immigration, and created a nearby frieze, “The Judgements of Solomon and Pao Kung.”

“I’m very disappointed,” Snyder said of the judge’s decision, adding, “Moving my artworks to Rikers Island, in my point of view, is like putting my artworks in jail.”

Ryan Max, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, has said in a statement that “after working with the artists in good faith over many months, we believed we had reached agreements with them both.”

He added, “With a professional conservator, the city has taken careful steps to preserve and document the work.”

The Visual Artists Rights Act has been used to protect public art of “recognized stature” created on someone’s else property. The law was invoked in a case involving the Queens warehouse known as 5Pointz, where demolition began in 2015 to make way for new condominiums. That ended with a federal judge ruling that a private developer would need to pay $6.75 million in fines for destroying the works of 21 graffiti artists there.

In January, a painting by Faith Ringgold was relocated from Rikers to the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of the impending shutdown of the Rikers prison complex, leaving the artists to wonder why their works should be moved there. (In 2019, the City Council voted to close the troubled jail and build four smaller jails scattered across the five boroughs by 2026.)

Some Chinatown residents see a parallel between the plight of the artists and the city’s decision to move forward with a new jail despite local opposition — members of Neighbors United Below Canal had connected Snyder and Haas with lawyers at the firm Sheppard Mullin, which is representing the artists.

“The rights of our community have been violated,” said Jan Lee, a founder of Neighbors United Below Canal.

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