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At the World Trade Center, a Familiar Tale of a Developer Exploiting Artists

Since last summer, artists have been invited to create works for free on the 69th floor of Four World Trade Center, a raw space that was recently leased to Spotify.

Artworks by Stickymonger, Duda, Sonni, and Lauren YS on the 69th floor of Four World Trade Center (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

What would you do if offered the opportunity to create and exhibit work at the top of one of the world’s most prominent buildings? For 50 or so artists given that chance at Four World Trade Center, the choice was obvious, even if it meant paying for all involved costs out of their own pockets, with zero compensation guaranteed. Starting last summer, they painted their visions on the tower’s 69th floor, one of the building’s last unfinished areas, which would otherwise have stood quiet and dull. But now, unwittingly for some, their art may serve as office decoration, following a convoluted sequence of events that exemplifies the infamously murky relationship between the worlds of art and real estate.

Logan Hicks’s mural, “Travel North,” before and during his buffing of the wall (photos courtesy the artist)

The creations now color the sky-high, raw space — literally, with pieces painted directly on its concrete walls, posters wheatpasted on columns, intricate adhesives covering windows, and floor paintings. They’re rendered in the style and spirit of street art, except here, 850 feet above street level, with unparalleled views of Lower Manhattan and the rare blessing of the building’s developer, Silverstein Properties. And much of it will soon belong to Spotify, which recently secured the 34,000-square-foot floor as part its 15-year lease on the tower’s top 11 levels, which are set to become its new New York City headquarters. While the billion-dollar music-streaming service has in the past commissioned local street artists to enliven its offices, this time its future home comes pre-packaged with a lot of this decor — for free.

Four World Trade Center opened in 2013. Although artists understood that the 69th floor would eventually be leased, news of a high-profile company signing for it less than a year after they finished painting was unexpected to many. Silverstein Properties publicly shared the news in mid-February but has still not made an official announcement to the artists, many of whom found out only through a New York Times exclusive on the 69th floor gallery. The London-based artist Fanakapan, for one, was not aware of the news until Hyperallergic reached out to him last week. He and a number of artists are now seeking compensation for pieces never intended to be permanent, much less to be adopted as corporate interior decoration without their consent and at their expense.

Many saw the opportunity to work in Four World Trade Center as an honor; an exceptional privilege to be part of the rebirth of the complex. A number of artists Hyperallergic spoke with said they signed onto the project as they believed they were making temporary work for a tightly curated exhibition under the working title, Streets to Towers: Life in NYC, purportedly set to open on September 11, 2016, to coincide with a 15th anniversary memorial ceremony organized by Silverstein Properties. No such event ever occurred; the developer now markets the display under the incongruous title, 69th Floor Graffiti Artists, according to promotional materials Hyperallergic received. The works on view today include everything from touching tributes to 9/11 victims and survivors to a sensual painting of a topless woman and various portraits of CEO Larry Silverstein.

Portraits of Larry Silverstein by Chris RWK and Sonni with foam board figure by Brolga
Hugo Bastidas, “Portraits: Larry Silverstein”

“That project was presented to me as a standalone extension of the World Trade Gallery,” artist Logan Hicks told Hyperallergic, referring to the family-owned gallery near the tower. “There was minimal mention of Larry Silverstein and Silverstein Properties. I spent close to $3,000 on getting stencils cut, plus volunteered my time and effort —something I did knowingly and without hesitation when I thought it was for a 9/11 ceremony to honor those from the 9/11 events. On Silverstein’s side … there was no materials, no logistical support, nothing.” He accused the developer of intentionally using the artwork to “show the space to potential business interests, and potential renters.

“So our art became a sales tactic for them,” he added. “Way I see it, they exploited the emotional attachment to the 9/11 events to line their pockets.”

On February 25, he asked his friend to help him remove the large-scale mural of Times Square at night that he had painted with his son last September. It was soon replaced by Ben Angotti‘s painting of the aforementioned nude woman. Other artists are now considering following the example set by Hicks, including Bushwick Collective’s Chris Stain and Joe Iurato, who together painted a larger-than-life portrait of a construction worker helping rebuild one of the World Trade Center towers, based on a photograph.

Joe Iurato and Chris Stain’s mural, “The Rising” (2016), with Jack Fox’s “Take Time”
Ben Angotti, “Sonic Elation” (2017)

“This was a very special project for me,” Iurato told Hyperallergic. “I worked at the World Trade Center briefly in 2001, as a volunteer at the Windows On The World wine class. I’d left just a few months prior to 9/11. Going there to paint this mural would be my first time returning to the site since. It was important to me that the work paid tribute to 9/11 while also honoring the resilience of the people of NYC.

“After giving it thought, Chris and I both feel that our mural does not belong in the environment of an entertainment company. It just doesn’t reflect our reasoning for painting the piece in the first place, and it doesn’t feel right to leave it. … Had I known the work was going to remain on the wall once the floor was occupied, or that it was potentially going to be used for marketing purposes, I would’ve approached everything differently including the concept and cost.”

Silverstein Properties is allowing artists to paint over their art, but doing so requires volunteering more of their personal time and money. For Stickymonger, who spent all of last summer spreading her giant vinyl stickers across the floor’s windows, the effort wouldn’t be worth it. It would also mean about $5,000 essentially spent for naught, which she covered with the help of three sponsors.

“I am just too tired to be mad at this point,” she told Hyperallergic, adding that she had been told to prepare for an interview with Fox on September 11 that never happened. “It’s so disappointing that Spotify gets all the artwork for free and the artists were put aside while they were negotiating. I will never take my installation down as it will take a couple of days for me to tear down, which means another time investment.”

Stickymonger, “Cosmic Tower” (2016)
Works by Stickymonger and Conrad Stojak

The idea for art on the 69th floor began as a casual conversation between Doug Smith, the owner of World Trade Gallery, and Silverstein Properties’s Chief Marketing Officer Dara McQuillan. Situated near the World Trade Center complex, Smith’s gallery primarily represents street artists. It also houses a frame shop, which handles a lot of Silverstein Properties’s framing needs.

About a year ago, McQuillan visited the store for business but also noticed the art on view. He told Smith he could offer his artists a larger canvas under certain conditions: they’d have to work for free since Silverstein Properties has no budget for art; and the works accepted had to remain with the building since the canvas being offered, of course, was the blank surfaces of raw commercial real estate. Yet, there was also no guarantee of permanence, since any future tenant would have full control over the floor’s architecture. In return for the artists’ efforts, they would receive media publicity and could invite friends, family, and collectors up to view their work. Smith, excited at the prospect, told him there’d be no problem finding interested artists.

“Silverstein Properties’s goal is to bring in some of the world’s top companies to rent space,” McQuillan told Hyperallergic. “In the meantime, we’re happy for artists to use the raw space until companies rent space in the building.”

Marcus Robinson’s studio on the 66th floor of Four World Trade Center

Silverstein Properties has actually housed artists in the World Trade Center towers for over a decade, providing them with free studio space worth millions of dollars in jaw-dropping settings. In what seems like a dream situation, these unofficial artists-in-residence retain full ownership of all work created, are allowed to invite collectors to see the space, and keep all profits made, according to McQuillan. Painters Marcus Robinson and Todd Stone have occupied the 66th and 67th floors, respectively, of Four World Trade Center since it opened. They used to work in Seven World Trade Center, painting scenes of the complex’s reconstruction, until their floors were leased to tenants. Now that Spotify is taking over floors 62 through 72, Robinson and Stone, along with a small group of other artists, will migrate once more to Three World Trade Center when it opens next spring, along with all their paintings.

And therein lies the root of the conflict on the 69th floor, where the artworks are immovable and available for whoever moves in. The impetus for the inviting artists to transform the space may have been, as Smith asserted, “altruistic,” but numerous are the cautionary tales of developers coopting art — particularly street art — as advertisement. To give just a handful of examples: the narrative has played out around a Detroit landmark; around a Philadelphia condo-to-be; and over and over again in New York City, from a pop-up art show in the Bronx to a prominent mural in Dumbo to a shrewd attempt to capitalize on 5pointz. To believe that real estate moguls don’t consider artworks on their properties to be assets would be acutely naive.

The amazing thing about Spotify is that they fell in love with the art and they’re going to design around it,” McQuillan told Hyperallergic. “The art that was done this summer and this fall is going to be there forever as part of their space. Maybe it was a factor … I certainly think it might have helped enhance the building.” He emphasized that Silverstein has never had an art budget and has no plans to compensate the artists. Hyperallergic has reached out to Spotify to ask if the company will pay the artists whose work is incorporated into their office décor, but has not received a response.

“Untitled” by UR New York and “Threshold Apprehension” by Hellbent

“Spotify has worked with ‘street artists’ to decorate their previous offices and those artists were paid, so I would guess they know that this stuff is not free,” artist Hellbent told Hyperallergic. “Since it is done, how do you retroactively put a price on the art? Some artists are at different levels and there will be different price points, and it just seems very hard to make all parties happy after the fact, which is why this is [usually] all done before paint hits the wall.” As a firsthand witness to the September 11 attacks, he created his patterned works as a small tribute to those affected by that day, also for the purported Streets to Towers exhibition.

“I will more than likely remove my work before Spotify moves in,” Hellbent added. “If they are interested in working with me they can contact me directly unless some sort of deal is brokered between the artists and them.”

Others still are more than happy for the new tenant to keep their work, particularly a high-profile company like Spotify. Although they may have eaten costs and essentially given away works worth thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars, some of the artists believe the recognition they receive will ultimately repay their investments.

“I mean, we all know what kinds of executives they’re going to bring through,” Sean Sullivan, who works as Layercake, told Hyperallergic. “Record executives, musicians, all sorts of people there. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising.

“To do a project on the 69th floor of the World Trade Center has been beneficial to a lot of us,” he added. “You’ve gotta be pretty dumb not to think the floor’s not going to get rented out eventually, and that whoever probably took it wasn’t going to want the artwork. Of course they’re going to want the artwork. But never did Silverstein say they were ever going to use it for marketing to rent the place.”

Murals by Bradley Theodore, Layer Cake, and WhIsBE
Sonni, “21 Characters”

The timeline of events, to some, suggests a dubious story. According to several artists, including Sullivan, they had to finish their creations by the anniversary date. Many, like Stickymonger, had the impression that there was going to be an exhibition opening on September 11 with plenty of media in attendance. They rushed to finish their works, but no event ever happened. Spotify was touring the space around that time; the company signed the lease in January.

Robert Marcucci, a consultant working with Silverstein Properties, said the September date was set simply “to get a completion date for this stuff. Because we wanted it to get concentrated, to have it done so we could do something with it.

“Everything just was thrown into the pot. We didn’t know what was going to really become of this until it started really percolating,” he added. “And we had all sorts of people with input, all sorts of curators come in. It was a wonderful, cool, happening thing. Things got convoluted, got mixed up here and there, but it’s just such an adventure.” Marcucci’s official title, on the plaques accompanying each artwork on view on the 69th floor, is “Executive in Charge of Production.” Some artists never worked directly with him and believed he was simply a building manager.

Ron English, “No Brain No Pain” (2016)

Around September of last year, Silverstein Properties executives had also started approving more space for art, and the curators — including Joshua Geyer and former Brooklyn Museum curatorial assistant Caitlin Crews — introduced more unpaid artists, often through informal invitations. While the artists Smith had initially brought on had to fill out an application form and explain how they would illustrate the concept of Streets to Towers, the only guidelines later participants were given, according to McQuillan, was to be respectful of the space. (All participating artists also had to sign a “temporary access and license agreement” with Silverstein Properties that let them more easily enter the high-security premises.)

Artist Ian Ferguson, who works as Hydeon, said he was simply offered a section that he covered with black-and-white paintings of brownstone façades. He was happy to exchange his 80 or 90 hours of free labor for the rare opportunity to work outside of his small Brooklyn apartment and up in the World Trade Center.

“I would have loved to get paid, of course, but for me it was more about the future exposure and future opportunities my mural would lead me to,” he told Hyperallergic, saying he appreciates Spotify’s interest in the art. “I never felt misled … I never felt like it was just some ‘free decoration’ for them … I feel like I’m still an undiscovered artist, and for me it was all about the opportunity/exposure.”

Iurato, who with Stain put in hundreds of dollars to create their 9/11 tribute mural, sees the situation differently. “Being an artist is often a very undervalued profession, where it’s very easy to go broke and fall short of your goals because people think you’ll just do it for ‘exposure,'” he said. “It seems everyone has a wall to paint or a place to hang a painting, where lots of people walk by, and that could bring great exposure and lead to commissions. But what they’re really saying is they want some art and don’t want to pay for it. Artists all go through it, and sometimes it’s just hard to say no.”

Installation of Kimyon Huggins’s piece, “Dakini Wonderland”
Murals by Dominic Pattinson, Dimension, and David Hollier, with sculpture by Savior Elmundo

As the months passed, artists were largely left in the dark about the fates of their works, with some still expecting an official unveiling or at least for curators to organize public visiting hours. Hicks accuses Smith of misleading him and others by remaining silent as the project’s concept strayed from the original vision he was pitched. The gallerist, he said, provided ambiguous answers to his inquiries about the Streets to Towers show, repeatedly saying he was hoping for something to happen. Hicks personally had no idea potential tenants were even touring the space, which he had believed was empty because Smith had received a special grace period for the project.

“Why not keep the artists updated with the facts of what is going on?” Hicks said. “To this day there is not a comprehensive list of artists who painted on that floor. It’s another case of a corporation thinking they are doing artists a favor by ‘allowing’ them to put up their work, while not considering the time, effort, or cost that went into creating the pieces.”

Invitation to private opening reception of the 69th floor gallery, with artwork by Fanakapan (image courtesy Silverstein Properties)

McQuillan told Hyperallergic that a website for the project is forthcoming, as is an opening event set for April 5 to celebrate the art and thank the artists. The event will welcome not only artists, their friends, family, and dealers, but also media, to ensure participants get publicity and acknowledgement for their work. The invitation for the opening features a photo of one of Fanakapan’s realist paintings, and although it’s prominently stamped with the Silverstein Properties logo, credit to the artist is absent.

Silverstein Properties has encouraged artists to bring reporters up to promote their own art, according to McQuillan. They had to wait, however, until the Times received the big media exclusive — what was essentially “a fluff piece” for the developer, Hicks said, with little focus on the art, and served “as a mouthpiece of saying, Look how fucking great our property is. Top-class tenants like Spotify are renting here.” He blames Smith for not properly informing artists of the floor’s developments. As an organizer who actually knows the art world, the gallerist “is in the position of doing something that advocates for the artists and their time and resources devoted to the project,” Hicks said. “But I’ve not seen any vocal opposition come out.”

To Smith, the 69th floor had always simply been an incredible showroom for his clients and prospective clients to see how artists may work on large-scale projects. If miscommunication occurred between him and some individuals, he said, it was due to time management issues and him juggling the project on top of his job at the gallery.

“My goal really hasn’t changed,” Smith told Hyperallergic. “My vision is, put amazing art in an amazing location with these incredible views, and good things will come of it. We’ll get some sales. But with any big project, it just kept growing. Many of the original ideas are really still on track, except the timeline changed.”

Chris RWK, “In the Big City”
Basil, “Perservere” and works by Brolga

Sales have happened. At least two artists reported selling pieces as a direct result of their work at Four World Trade Center. In less than a year, the 69th floor has transformed from art show to showroom; while artists are certainly receiving at least exposure, as time wears on, it’s painfully clear that for their billionaire hosts, quantity outweighs quality, and brand image trumps artistic integrity.

“[Silverstein executives] are now trying to cram as much ‘art’ in there as they can as they think that is what is supposed to happen,” Hellbent told Hyperallergic. “What made the original project really great was that it was curated around a theme and there was high talent level. … In the last week some more shit was stuffed into every bit of naked wall or floor. I think that dilutes the quality of the original idea.”

It’ll be about a year until Spotify’s architects touch the space, by which time the 69th floor may look entirely different depending on what additions and subtractions transpire. Perhaps the music company will do business with some of the artists involved and pay them for new commissions to brighten up its 10 other, unadorned floors. The company has already worked with at least one of them, a few years ago: Spotify previously hired Chris RWK to paint its offices, twice. The Robots Will Kill founder hadn’t been told that the 69th floor was going to be rented when he painted his signature android-like figures on its elevator bank, thinking it was being used for photo shoots or events. Still, he doesn’t want to buff out his efforts — which means that the music company’s third set of Chris RWK works will be freebies.

“I personally was driven by emotion for the project,” Chris RWK said. “I definitely understand that Silverstein is a large corporation with money and that Spotify is also.

“At this point,” he added, “if there was compensation, how would it be judged? The project is done, and my artwork is high above the city I love.” It’s a quandary created by those who never considered such concerns at the outset; finding a solution to it was never part of their agenda.

Lauren YS, “Flying Stripes” with Cern, “We Trust More Than We Hate”
Installation view of the 69th floor gallery
Painting by Erasmo with Sonni’s “21 Characters”
Miguel Ovalle’s in-progress sculpture with L.E.G. and Itaewon’s “Light Print”
Work by Frank Ape
Dru Blumensheid, “Do Humans Dream of Electric Sheep”
BoogieRez, “Optimistic Rebel”
Rubin 415, “II”
Installation view of the 69th floor of 4 World Trade Center
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