Arts vs. crafts vs. farmers: Portland tries to draw the line

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PORTLAND — In a city known for its creative economy and Buy Local movement, a seemly innocuous proposal to create a weekly craft fair in Monument Square is pitting artists and craftsmen against farmers and business owners.

The city began receiving complaints this summer about the number of craftspeople who were setting up tables in and around the farmers markets in Monument Square and Deering Oaks Park.

Craftspeople have also set up shop on Commercial Street, near the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal, when cruise ships are visiting.

The tables have drawn complaints from business owners and farmers, but for different reasons.

Janis Beitzer, executive director of the Portland Downtown District, said members are concerned the sidewalk craftspeople are stealing business from merchants who pay rents.

“It’s just not a level playing field,” she said.

Some farmers, meanwhile, said craftspeople are causing congestion at their markets, making it difficult for people move from one stand to another. They are also concerned that craftspeople are not paying for permits.

Jodie Jordan, of Alewives Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth, said he’s been a vendor at the Monument Square Farmers Market for the last five years. He said the recent explosion of craftspeople is clogging the square.

“I think they should have their own day,” he said.

Keith Boyle, of the Uncle Farm Stand, said craftspeople probably do not want their own day, because not as many people would shop there. Some farmers market customers are complaining about the “flea market atmosphere,” he said.

“A craft market would be wonderful, but we provide a built-in crowd.” he said. “We pay ($70) for our spaces; they don’t.”

Separating arts from crafts

In response to the complaints, City Attorney Mary Costigan said she was directed by the city manager to begin cracking down on craftspeople.

Artists are allowed to set up, within certain parameters, near businesses and festivals, because art is a protected form of free speech. According to City Code:

“Works of art protected by the First Amendment and thus permitted to be sold by the artist without a permit in Portland include expressive items such as paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures. Performance art is also protected by the First Amendment.”

Costigan said she has made several trips to areas where craftspeople have set up. After talking with them, she decides whether their products – jewelry, soaps, hand-made wooden spoons, textiles and the like – are legally classified as art.

She said case law defines art as something that is “predominantly expressive,” such as painting, sculpture, photography and prints. But some jewelry and pottery may fit that definition, too.

“It’s a difficult test,” she said. “There’s a large gray area. It’s really difficult to make that call, but somebody has to do it.”

Artists and craftspeople unite

Nearly 100 people filled Merrill Auditorium’s rehearsal hall last week for a public hearing about a proposed craft market, which would provide a venue for craftspeople to sell their products legally, Costigan said.

But discussion during the hearing, hosted by the City Council’s Health and Recreation Committee, was passionate and quickly turned to criticism of the city’s definition of art.

Critics said the city uses too narrow of a definition of art. Students from the Maine College of Art said that more than half their offerings would not be considered art by the city.

Robert Doyle said he has studied primitive art for the last 15 years. He held up a piece of jewelry that looked like an arrowhead.

“This biface is my response to Casco Bay, where I grew up,” he said. “I resent very much being told by lawyers and police officers what art is or isn’t.”

Maria Wolff, a MECA-educated metalsmith who now works at Springer’s Jewelers, said the vibrant street scene is an asset to both her personal art and professional job.

“It doesn’t affect us,” she said. “If anything, it brings more community to the store.”

Jen Joaquin, a South Portland painter, said if the city separates artists from craftsmen, both groups would be hurt.

“Arts and crafts aren’t mutually exclusive – they’re dependent upon each other,” she said. “What makes my work any more valid that anybody else’s work?”

Joaquin said artists and craftsmen alike are essentially street ambassadors to tourists, whether they come in by ship or not.

“They are a friendly face that anyone feels safe and comfortable going up to asking for information,” she said.

Crystal Tripp, a metalsmith, said the city should have first reached out to the craftsmen, before suddenly enforcing the rules.

“Why didn’t you talk to us before you started policing us,” she said. “That was rude.”

Tripp said she uses shark’s teeth from local fisherman in her work. And also tells tourists where they can get a Maine Italian sandwich and about other local restaurants.

“We’re not just out there benefiting ourselves,” she said. “We’re benefiting Portland, Maine. And we deserve to be respected.”

Beitzer, of PDD, said the business group has always supported art on the street. “That is not what the issue is about,” she said. “It is about illegal street vending.”

Task force planned

City Councilor Dory Waxman, the Health and Recreation Committee chairwoman, said the comments received at the public hearing will be forwarded to a task force that will be assembled by the incoming mayor.

Waxman said the task force, if approved by the City Council, would meet through the winter to forge a solution that is, hopefully, agreeable to both sides. That recommendation may or may not include the proposed craft fair.

“It needs to be a thoughtful process with stakeholder input,” Waxman said. “This is the very start of the process.”

Deb Robbins said she hopes all parties can work together to find a solution. About 25 percent of her handmade soap business is generated at farmers markets, she said. 

Robbins, who owns Mr. Dandelion soaps in Portland, was set up at the Monument Square Farmers Market recently, even though she had previously been kicked out by the city. She now rents the outdoor space legally from the Public Market House for $25 a year. 

“We’re all just trying to make a living,” she said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

Sidebar Elements

Artist Joan Watson works on a painting at her table at the Deering Oaks Farmers Market last Saturday morning.