KINDERHOOK—The village Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) met on Zoom December 28 to discuss the application from Jack Shainman Gallery/The School about the gallery’s newest exhibit: the words “Truth Be Told” in large, black letters on the exterior of the building at 25 Broad Street/Route 9.
ZBA Chairman Jerome Callahan told the online audience of over 50 people that this was a meeting to review the application from Mr. Shainman and his lawyer, William Better, asking the board to overturn the ruling by village Code Enforcement Officer/Building Inspector Peter Bujanow that the work could not go up since it was a “sign” or “banner.”
The words have been modified recently and will most likely come down at the end of the month. According to an article in the New York Times, this piece by artist Nick Cave will be installed on the Brooklyn Museum this spring.
At the December meeting board members and the lawyer for the board, as well as Mr. Bujanow and Mr. Better, spoke. But Mr. Callahan said the meeting was “not a public hearing,” so members of the public were not allowed to comment. The board set a public hearing on the matter for January 25.
The application the ZBA was discussing, submitted December 4, says, “the applicant requests an interpretation of the Village Zoning Code and the review and overturning of the decision rendered by the Building Inspector… on October 5th, 2020. The decision erroneously concluded that the location of art on the exterior of the building… was an unlawful sign or banner. This decision further determined that the art installation required a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Hence, the issue is whether ‘Truth Be Told’ is a sign, banner, billboard, or an unregulatable work of art.”
In 2012, Mr. Shainman bought the two-story brick building from the Ichabod Crane (ICC) School District. Built in 1929, the building was once the school for the entire Kinderhook School District before it merged with other county districts and became part of the ICC district. The school board closed the school in 2011 due to declining enrollment. The building is in a residential zone district and in the historic district of the village.
After several meetings with the Planning Board and ZBA in late 2012, the building was designated a “cultural use facility” and part of the agreement with the village was that Mr. Shainman had to come to the code enforcement officer for review of any changes to the outside of the building. In 2014 and 2015 Mr. Shainman received variances from former village CEO Glen Smith for banners on the building and artwork on the front lawn.
Mr. Bujanow was appointed CEO in the fall of 2019 and when the The School came to him for permission for this new artwork, Mr. Bujanow wrote in an October 5 letter to The School that the request “is denied due to your proposal not being in compliance with Kinderhook Village Code and the additional safety concerns raised when reviewing New York State Building Code.”
On October 21 Mr. Bujanow issued a stop work order as the lettering was going up on the building. The stop work order lists the alleged violations including: “Exterior alterations in the Landmarks and Historic District requires Historic Preservation Commission review and approval, Village Code Chapter 75-6; Violation of Village Sign Regulations, Village Code Chapter 130-19 and Chapter 130 Attachment 2; Violation of Code Enforcement Officer letter dated October 5, 2020, denying the application of flammable, material to the building facade; and Violation of 2020 NYS Existing Building Code violation—applying combustible material to building exterior.”
At the December 28 ZBA meeting, Mr. Bujanow talked about the zoning code for a residential zone and the historic district, pointing out the history of the building and the buildings around it. He said that Broad Street is “rich” with history.
‘It is art. Nothing more, nothing less.’
William Better, attorney
Jack Shainman Gallery
He said that the request he received from The School was originally for a vinyl material to be wrapped around the whole building. He also stressed that it was not a formal application.
“This was very different,” he said of the other projects in 2014 and 2015 from The School.
He also said he met with a representative from the school several times and reached out to state officials, about the material, saying they were concerned about flammability.
Mr. Bujanow said that there was nothing in the village code about wraps so he looked at the code for signs, as well as banners, which are not allowed in the historic district, and billboards, which are not allowed anywhere in the village. Mr. Bujanow said The School reached out to the village mayor as well as the Planning Board and ZBA to meet. “It was an informational meeting,” he said.
Mr. Bujanow said the next day he was informed that the lettering was going up so he issued a stop work order. He said there was no building permit issued for the work.
He stressed during the meeting that there was a process for The School to get approvals. Later in the meeting he pointed to a letter in 2018 that Mr. Shainman sent to the village asking permission for a piece to be displayed that had lights. Mr. Bujanow said that, “Mr. Shainman was aware of the process.”
Mr. Better argued that the work of the artist, Nick Cave, on the building is not a sign. The lawyer said his client, Mr. Shainman, did not need a building permit for the work since this was not a change to the building. He also stressed that there was no application for a sign or banner because that’s not what the work is.
“It is art,” he said, “nothing more, nothing less.” The piece is “not for sale” and it is temporary, Mr. Better said. When asked, he said he thought the work might come down at the end of January.
He also took issue with the idea that the material used was a hazard or more flammable than “the wood in a home on Albany Avenue.” He said that idea was just to cause fear.
Mr. Better also mentioned a few times that art does not need village approval. “If someone wants to paint Black Lives Matter on the side of their building, I don’t think they need to get permission,” he said.
ZBA member Kim Grey tried to address Mr. Shainmen when asking her questions about the application. She said she was on the board in 2012, as well as 2014 and 2015, and worked with The School on those applications. She mentioned that in 2012, Mr. Shainman was very deferential to the Planning Board and ZBA concerns at the time and that under the special use permit the boards granted the gallery, he agreed to operate under some conditions.
“You have been a real asset to the village,” she said. And she pointed out that up until this year, the gallery has complied with the permit. Ms. Grey asked Mr. Shainman if he thought the board changed the permit. She asked if he thought he had approval for this project because of past approvals. Mr. Shainman did not comment at the meeting.
Another board member, David Sullivan, asked about regulations. Mr. Better responded, “Art isn’t regulated by the Village of Kinderhook.”
Mr. Callahan, the ZBA chair, asked if Mr. Shainman would say “Truth Be Told” is an idea; Mr. Better agreed it is. Mr. Callahan said that ideas are part of the definition of billboards in village code.
“I don’t think anyone is trying to regulate art,” Mr. Callahan said.
In mass email on January 14, Mr. Shainman wrote, “While turmoil and insanity continue to brew in our nation’s capital, here in Kinderhook we are battling our own threats. To my shock and disbelief, the [village] has doubled down on its assertion that Nick Cave’s Truth Be Told is not a work of art and are calling for its immediate removal.” He also linked to the New York Times article saying this spring The Brooklyn Museum “will be installing Nick Cave’s artwork ‘Truth Be Told’ (2020) on the outdoor plaza near its entrance, in conjunction with an exhibition beginning May 14 that will feature contemporary work in the collection by some 60 artists.”
The article says that Mr. Cave will alter the work in the village, to say only “Truth,” starting this week, “removing the other two words in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the inauguration of a new president ‘who values the truth,’ Mr. Shainman said.”
In an open letter from Mr. Cave that Mr. Shainman linked to in his email, the artist writes, “Censorship is a crime against communities, progress, and enlightenment, not individuals. I know that the [village] of Kinderhook is not censoring the words I’ve formed, but rather the meaning that they’ve assigned to them and in turn the ability of others to have access to my provocation. They are censoring the words of a Black man in a moment when our country, more so than ever, is divided on the basic principles of fact and fiction. This is not about me, but about those who come after. I am not the one who stands to lose.
“While ‘Truth Be Told’ may be inflammatory and a sign of the times, it is in no way flammable or signage.”
The ZBA will hold a public hearing on issue at its next meeting January 25 at 7 p.m. That meeting will be held on Zoom. For more information about the application and how to attend the meeting go to www.villageofkinderhook.org
The notice of the public hearing on the village website says that those who wish to speak during the hearing need to notify the ZBA clerk at the Village of Kinderhook, Zoning Board of Appeals, 6 Chatham Street, PO Box 325, Kinderhook, NY 12106, or by phone at 518 758-8778 ext. 305 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Each request to be heard will be placed on a list and will be invited to speak during the hearing in the order in which the request was received,” according to the notice.
To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email email@example.com