Federal Judge Awards Street Artists $6.7 Million in Milestone Case Against Landlord

On Monday, a federal judge in Brooklyn awarded $6.7 million in damages to 21 artists whose work at 5Pointz — a former factory turned space for artists' studios in Queens, NY — was destroyed according to The Washington Post. This comes after a three-week trial in November 2017 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. The case marked the first time a court has been asked to determine whether graffiti, with its transitory nature, should be considered art protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), weighing a property owner's rights against the rights of visual artists. 
 
Senior United States District Judge Frederic Block awarded the artists the maximum damages possible, saying the building's owner, Gerald Wolkoff, "willfully" ruined the artwork and showed no remorse for his "recalcitrant behavior." "He was bent on doing it his way, and just as he ignored the artists' rights he also ignored the many efforts the Court painstakingly made to try to have him responsively answer the questions posed to him," Block wrote in his opinion. "Wolkoff has been singularly unrepentant."
 
As a final resort one tenant, Johnathan Cohen, tried to prevent the imminent demolition by seeking a preliminary injunction against Wolkoff under VARA. The court denied the plaintiffs' application for a preliminary injunction but said an opinion would come within eight days. "Rather than wait for the Court's opinion," Block wrote, "Wolkoff destroyed almost all of the plaintiffs' paintings by whitewashing them during that eight-day interim."
 
The landlord and his lawyer have contended that the artists knew for years that the buildings would ultimately be demolished but Block said Wolkoff should have put off demolishing the properties for at least 10 months when he had all his permits. The judge said Wolkoff's "precipitous conduct was an act of pure pique and revenge for the nerve of the plaintiffs to sue to attempt to prevent the destruction of their art."
 
The case is also the first time that a jury decided a VARA claim in court.
 
 
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