The New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is seeking proposals from artists to decorate its 46,000-pound waste collection vehicles. But artists whose designs are selected will not be paid, raising questions about whether the city’s open call devalues art.
DSNY is rebooting this public art project, Trucks of Art, for the second time, and will be accepting expressions of interest from artists until September 18. Its inaugural edition happened in 2019, when four artists and students in a visual arts class were selected to cover the 400-square-foot blank “canvases” with images of sanitation workers, recycling, and flowers. Almost 100 artists applied, and Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia at the time called the designs “truly … works of art.”
DSNY will privilege proposals that center the over 7,000 sanitation workers who keep New York clean and motifs of cleanliness. Participating artists will be provided with supplies and a working space to enact their designs, and they will have just three, seven-hour work days, sometime in late September and early October, to completely adorn their collection vehicle, including all three visible sides of the truck. They will be encouraged to keep waste low by using recycled and discarded paints. The design will remain on the truck for as long as it remains intact on the vehicle. The trucks are expected to hit the road by October, and DSNY hopes to represent artists from every borough.
But DSNY’s search for volunteer artists to design their trucks has drawn criticism. Its FY 2022 budget stands at $1.9 billion, and it currently ranks as the largest sanitation department in the world. Andre Charles, a New York City-born and raised graffiti artist, posted a graphic on Monday that was emblazoned with the slogan, “Artists should be paid just like everyone else.”
“Artists today are paying high rents, they’re trying to survive, they live off what they do,” Charles said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “The people who have all of this sponsorship and donations, they know that artists are suffering, but they know that artists are often not educated enough, and that they’re trying to promote themselves and be famous and popular, that they won’t take the time out to read the fine print.”
In this case, the fine print is that artists will receive no compensation, and that they will grant both DSNY and partner organization the Sanitation Foundation the “royalty-free, non-exclusive right to use and/or reproduce the designs for non-commercial and/or educational purposes.” Charles said that after making his Instagram post, he heard from several artists who thanked him for sharing the information and hadn’t caught the specificities of the request for proposals.
Charles has been a vocal advocate for graffiti artists getting paid their fair due; it has been a longstanding fact that brands commercialize their work for free without acknowledging it. “Most of these artists don’t copyright their work,” he said. “So when people photograph it or use it for whatever they want to use it for — a T-shirt, or commercial use — that same artist that created it doesn’t get paid.”
But Charles is heartened by the generational shift in attitudes around the importance of paying artists, and says, “We’re in a new generation — we’re in a new timezone.”
In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the DSNY called Trucks of Art a “fun, non-commercial, community-based project,” adding that artists retain all rights to their work, though they won’t be paid. “We are excited to work with local artists who want to help add some flair to our neighborhoods,” the spokesperson added.
Editor’s Note, 8/31/2022, 11:45am: This article has been updated with a comment from the New York City Department of Sanitation.
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