KINDERHOOK—The village Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously that artwork that was on the facade of the Jack Shainman Gallery/The School is not a sign and cannot be regulated under village code.
In a motion adopted at the ZBA’s special meeting February 2, ZBA members also recommended that the Village Board work with the gallery’s owner “to determine what can be done to allow The School to operate without undue conflict with the Village’s residents and government.”
The gallery, at 25 Broad Street/Route 9, displayed the words “Truth Be Told” in large vinyl letters on the outside of the brick building beginning in late October 2020. The work, by artist Nick Cave, was recently changed to say only the word “Truth” in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the presidential inauguration. All the words have since been taken down. Mr. Shainman, the gallery owner, had said the exhibit would end at the end of January. The work will next be recreated on the facade of the Brooklyn Museum this spring as part of a larger exhibit.
A sign on the lawn of the gallery while the work was on the building, said, “On the eve of one of the most critical presidential elections in our lifetime, Nick Cave has produced a site-specific public artwork…” It went on to say, “This statement is a pointed antidote to a presidency known for propaganda that disguises truth and history to present racist and nativist ideology as patriotism. It is also open-ended. ‘Truth Be Told’ stands as an act of protest, acknowledging the power of words as symbols [and] organizing forces.”
Mr. Shainman has owned the former school building since 2012 and has used it as a gallery with a special use permit from the village for a cultural facility and variances for artwork on the lawn and banners on the building. In early October, Village Code Enforcement Officer Peter Bujanow denied the gallery’s request to put up this exhibit in part saying that the wording was a sign. At the meeting on Tuesday, Village Attorney Rob Fitzsimmons reviewed the history of the issue, saying Mr. Bujanow’s ruling said a sign was not permissible without review by the village Planning Board and possibly the Historic Preservation Commission. He said the gallery appealed Mr. Bujanow’s ruling to the ZBA on the grounds that “Truth Be Told” was not a sign.
The ZBA held a meeting in December to review Mr. Shainman’s appeal. At that time they moved to a public hearing on the issue on January 25. That meeting was over three hours long, with several people speaking; the majority spoke in favor of the appeal that the artwork was not a sign. ZBA Chair Jerome Callahan announced at the January public hearing that the board would discuss the application in February since the public hearing was so lengthy.
At the February 2 meeting, Mr. Callahan said there would be no public comment and that only the board would discuss the appeal.
“I don’t see a sign,” said ZBA member Gregory Seaman. He said that the words are artwork displayed appropriately on an art gallery. Board members Bill Barford and David Sullivan said they agreed that it was art and not a sign but they both urged the Village Board to work with the gallery on updating the code. Mr. Sullivan talked about defining a cultural facility so that the ZBA does not have to deal with the issue again.
Mr. Callahan also said that the work does not fall under the village code for signs and that it was protected political speech. He talked about the village code not having a definition or guidance for art so the work “escapes regulation.” He also asked the village to sit down with the gallery owner and see how the code can be improved and to avoid future conflict.
Board member Kimberly Grey felt that Mr. Shainman was violating the special use permit the village Planning Board had granted him. She said the village code stressed protecting residential zones and the gallery was now trying to have outdoor displays when their permit was for inside the building. She said this was not the same as the sculptures already on the lawn of the gallery. She said that Mr. Shainman was attempting to expand the special use permit and this was a new use of the building.
She also said she believes in the value of art. “People should be able to seek out art,” she said but she didn’t think it should be “foisted” on them.
Mr. Callahan pointed out the ZBA has given Mr. Shainman variances for banners on the building and artwork on the front lawn in the past.
‘I don’t see a sign.”
Gregory Seaman, member
Village of Kinderhook ZBA
The motion Mr. Callahan proposed and the board voted on said in part that the words as exhibited on the facade of the cultural facility “were displayed as a political message and art for a temporary period of time, and therefore the Kinderhook Village Code does not apply to regulate the exhibit as a sign.”
In the end, Ms. Grey voted Yea along with the other four members on the motion that said the work could not be regulated as a sign and recommended that the village work with Mr. Shainman since “the Kinderhook Village Code does not currently regulate the use of a cultural facility or its accessory uses occurring within a residential district.”
About 55 people attended the online meeting. The ZBA normally meets on the fourth Monday of the month. Information is on the village website at www.villageofkinderhook.org
Information on the gallery is at jackshainman.com/the_school
To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email email@example.com