Art sellers may get kicked off Honolulu zoo fence
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By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Artists who have set up shop along a Honolulu Zoo fence since 1953 are pleading for public support in the face of a court hearing next month that could end their long run.
A state Probate Court hearing on Dec. 14 will take up the issue of whether the weekend art sale on the zoo fence and nearby craft fairs violate the Kapi'olani Park trust, which was designed to preserve the park as an open, public space.
And the ruling could have broader implications for commercial activities in the park, long a concern of the nonprofit Kapi'olani Park Preservation Society, which calls itself a watchdog for the trust.
The trust lands extend from Kapahulu Avenue to the archery range on Paki Avenue, and include Honolulu Zoo, the Waikiki Shell, soccer and softball fields, tennis courts and picnic areas, but not the War Memorial Natatorium or the Waikiki Aquarium.
The courts have previously ruled that the Waikiki Shell and Honolulu Zoo are permissible on the trust property, though they have banned the establishment of an eatery on the land.
The Kapi'olani Park Preservation Society — which has no legal authority over the park's administration, but sees itself as representing community sentiment — argues that the trust for the park set up in 1896 bans most forms of commercial activity, including art and craft sales, cultural festivals, and a day of festivities surrounding the National Football League's Pro Bowl, which is held in February. The society says such activities — week after week — keep many park users away and put too much wear and tear on the park.
They also worry the activities will spur a snowball effect, further limiting the use of Kapi'olani — a rare public expanse of green for picnics, family outings, gatherings and recreation in one of the most densely populated communities in the state.
"The use of the park for these commercial sales is keeping people from using the park," said Jack Gillmar, the secretary of the society. "It's basically turning the park into a flea market."
But artists who set up on the zoo fence say their weekend shows are a cultural event, where people who cannot afford gallery space get a chance to show off their work and offer it for sale. Crafters contend their fairs show off locally made art, too.
And the city has argued that the events are permissible in the park under the terms of the trust.
"That's the only place I show my work," said Margaret Giles, treasurer for the nonprofit Art at the Zoo Fence Inc., which handles dues and membership for artists at the spot. Giles said she has been displaying her oil paintings on the fence for 22 years.
The nonprofit gets an annual permit to operate at the fence. Artists pay dues to sell their paintings, a portion of which goes to charity. The rest goes to liability insurance and advertising.
There are about 35 full-time members who exhibit at the fence, and some half-dozen people who show their work occasionally. The fence has about 25 spaces for art. Artists can also use peg boards or a nearby hedge.
Linda Bachrach, a zoo fence artist since 2002, said residents and visitors frequent the site. The fence artists have collected some 12,000 signatures of support from patrons over the last year.
City attorneys did not return calls this week, but City Councilman Charles Djou, who serves as a trustee for the park along with the rest of the council, said craft fairs and the art on the fence should be seen as community — not commercial — events.
"Most of the people who are vending are truly artists," he said.
The upcoming hearing stems from a 2003 petition, in which City Council members asked the court for guidance on whether the fence art show and craft fairs violate the terms of the trust.
City Council members filed the petition after increased pressure from the preservation society, which was calling for an end to the art on the fence, craft fair and other activities.
In response to the petition, the state attorney general's office, which serves as guardian of the trust, weighed in on the issue in an April 2006 court filing. The document stopped short of interpreting the trust as banning commercial activities.
But it did say the city appears to be violating its own rules — irrespective of the trust — regarding private sales on public land. It also said that by allowing the art on the zoo fence exhibit to operate year after year with a permit, the city is essentially granting leases in the park, which is not allowed.
The Kapi'olani Park trust ensures no part of the park can be sold, and forbids long-term leases on the property. Still, because many view language in the trust as ambiguous, administration of the park has been contentious.
The courts have settled some of those disagreements before.
In 1988, the state Supreme Court barred the city from leasing space next to the Honolulu Zoo for a Burger King. A 1991 ruling clarified the trust terms, saying that spaces in the park could not be leased, though the operation of the Honolulu Zoo on park grounds was permissible along with use of the Waikiki Shell for short-term events.
And this isn't the first time the art on the fence has been in danger. Nearly a decade ago, the City Council sent a letter to the city Parks Department objecting to the show and "any other commercial activities of the artists" on park property.
According to court documents, the city told the attorney's general office that it had stopped issuing permits to the zoo fence artists after the letter, and only resumed in 2003. But the office found that a permit was issued in 2000, and in every year since, court documents said.
Additionally, the attorney general's office said the fence display was started by a Chaminade University professor, with support from the city. Originally, the six to seven artists who participated called the show the "Saturday Art Mart."
But the display quickly grew in popularity to 50 artists — and has stayed at about that number since.
Fence artists say they don't make much in revenues with the show, once their fees are factored in.
To sell pieces every weekend for three months, they are required to pay $130. Those who sell occasionally pay $10 a day.
Bachrach, who started showing at the zoo fence after a watercolor class, said some artists sell nothing or only a few paintings some weekends, while others can make up to $300.
Bachrach shows her paintings every Sunday, and says she doesn't do it for the money. She does it for the joy of showing her art. "Galleries wouldn't take it," she said, "but I love to do it."
The zoo fence artists pledge they'll find another spot if they have to move. But for now, they said, they're not going anywhere.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.
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