Art peddlers struggle


Photo Illustration by Grace Wiley

Selling art on the street

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

Perched on the corner of a bustling Chicago street on a summer day in 2013, Shellie Lewis was selling her fine art photographs and paintings out of a lonely cart with a smile. Although customers and passersby would sometimes return smiles, Lewis said her art business was not welcomed by the city. 

Chicago’s art peddling laws, which street sellers to obtain permits, are unnecessarily rigid, Lewis siad. The city requires that those who wish to acquire the permits to have an in-person meeting with the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection organization and pay $165 for a two-year permit, Senior citizens may purchase them for $88. 

“The City of Chicago supports the sales of general merchandise on the public way—city-owned land, sidewalk, streets, parkway—by obtaining a peddlers license,” said Mika Stambaugh, director of communications for the BACP, in an emailed statement. “Mayor Rahm Emanuel is committed to making City Hall an active partner in all business efforts in Chicago to cut red tape, lower costs for business owners and cultivate community partners that help small businesses get started and grow.” 

However, Lewis’ experience was not simple. Lewis said she acquired both of the proper permits to legally peddle her art downtown. It took a total of 51 days: 49 for the initial general license and another two days for the separate license to sell downtown. On top of multiple in-person meetings with BACP workers, she also had to pay $100, the price in 2013, for her two-year license. 

“Chicago is very blue collar [and] very practical,” Lewis said. “They just don’t want [art peddling] here.”

Lewis said it is difficult to sell her art even with a permit because of stringent regulations. Many Chicago streets are off-limits to peddlers, such as most of the South Loop district, Rogers Park, Edgewater, the area around the Allstate Arena at 6920 N. Mannheim Road, and Wrigley Field, making it very difficult for her to find a profitable place to sell. 

Lewis is not the first artist to struggle with selling art on the street. Lewis worked closely with Chris Drew, a famous artist whose case helped overturn Illinois’ eavesdropping laws in the State Supreme Court in March. In 2009, police arrested him for selling art on the street without a permit. Because he was deliberately challenging the peddling permit laws, he activated a tape recorder in his pocket before the imminent arrest to record police comments. After it was discovered, he was charged with violating eavesdropping laws, according to a May 10, 2012 Chicago Tribune report. He helped change the eavesdropping laws by accident while fighting to change the peddling laws. 

According to Lewis, Drew struggled to sell his art on the street for several years and eventually gave his art away for free because the laws were so restrictive. He died of cancer in 2012. 

In the 1960s, Drew was an ice cream vendor without a care in the world. Later in his life, when Drew’s wife fell ill and he was diagnosed with cancer, it became hard for him to support himself so he turned to selling his art on the street. He was not able to make money with the same ease.

Annika Marie, an assistant professor of art history in Columbia’s Art + Design Department, said she was surprised to learn how restrictive the laws were regarding peddling.

“The idea of the Bohemian has developed beyond that sense of the social-political stigma of being radical in a bad way.” Marie said. “It seems more like something a city would boast of—being a lively cultural capital.” 

Marie said artists have historically profited from a patron-artist relationship in which the patron is of a higher class than the artist. Likewise, artists have trouble selling in today’s classist art market, Marie said.

“The street vendor artist—it’s a pretty interesting setup,” Marie said. “Who is the audience or the patron of that? Does it fit into a model of art collecting as something that should be available to not just the upper classes but the working classes as well?”

Lewis said she agrees that class and money could be factors in restricting street art sales. Legal restrictions and public aversion to street vending could be because of class or racial prejudice, she said. As a college-educated white female, Lewis said she is in a position of privilege, and it may be even harder to get permits for those of less privilege.

“It’s very hard for people to care about poor people,” Lewis said. “But when you think about microbusiness, it’s ironic for me, because if I was a woman in some place in Africa that was developing, people would be donating money to a major foundation.”

Kate Merena, owner of Sacred Art, 4619 N. Lincoln Ave., a local art gallery that focuses on exhibiting marginalized artists, said she thinks artists should have several outlets to show their work, including street vending. However, she said there are problems with the art peddling model in terms of the public’s level of receptivity.

“I think the difference [between a gallery setting and selling art on the street] really comes to the public’s fear or the public’s hesitancy about legitimacy,” Merena said. “I think if you can get your work in a store, people automatically think you’re a more legitimate artist.”

When Lewis finally got her permits and began selling on the street, she was not well-received by the public because they were not used to seeing art peddlers in Chicago, she said. The laws restricted her and the general public was suspicious of her, making it nearly impossible for her to sell her art on the street with any degree of success. Because of these obstacles, she said she made $28 in art sales throughout the entire summer.

“The general public is just not accustomed to it, so I think they think you’re secretly selling drugs,” Lewis said. “I had the most non-threatening cute photographs, little paintings, very decorative, very vanilla. Little children would come up and say, ‘Hey!’ [while] adults would be recoiling.”