For eight years, Larry Rivers’s fiberglass legs sculpture on the exterior wall of an historic Sag Harbor house has been the source of debate and delight. Delight, well, because they are interesting, different, a bit iconoclastic. And, debate for two reasons: For one, because Sag Harbor Village officials say they are in violation of village zoning rules and, second, because that determination has spurred many to think, discuss, and sometimes disagree about the role of art in our lives and around our homes — big art in full public view. Like most juicy stories around here, it has been covered in The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Page Six, and made into a short film.
Janet Lehr and Ruth Vered, who put up the sculpture outside their house, a former church, are well suited for the fight: They own and run the Vered Art Gallery in East Hampton, and they took their battle all the way to the New York State Supreme Court. For them, it was the principle of the thing, but they also were waging the costly court war to ensure that the question of public art on private property got a fair hearing.
Some of the naysayers argued that it was all a marketing ploy by these two gallery owners. Dan’s Papers chimed in: it would be like forbidding a Cadillac dealer from parking his new Escalade in his driveway. Supporters included dozens of artists who spoke out in favor of Legs at various hearings. Vered and Lehr received some 800 letters of support.
But the duo eventually lost in a legal ruling last fall, with the court siding with the village: The legs, the court said, are an “accessory structure” that has no permit and is too tall and too close to the property line. They had to go.
In victory, however, the village seems to have dropped the issue. “Nobody has told me they must come down,” Lehr said recently, sitting in the Vered Gallery. “I love them in front of the building. I think they define art in Sag Harbor.”
“The legs are still standing, and that’s where it stands,” said Stephen Grossman, the Sag Harbor attorney who represented Lehr and Vered in the case. The women “made their point in litigation. Nobody is upset about the legs anymore,” said Grossman, vowing to continue protecting his clients’ right to free speech and expression. “It’s time for the village to let it go.”
Meanwhile, another battle over public art has bubbled up in Montauk, after the Surf Lodge commissioned a rainbow-hued mural painted by Jen Stark, a Los Angeles artist. Last summer, at the start of Memorial Day weekend, the Town of East Hampton issued a court summons saying the Surf Lodge had failed to obtain town approval for the colorful mural. The violation carried a $1,000 fine. But the town dropped that case late last year.
Small victories, for sure, but in a region where art and artists have been at the heart of things for more than a century, public art holds a sentimental place in residents’ hearts. — EAST Staff