Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The 'private' park and the public artist

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Last year about this time, Graham Hnatiuk was the Assiniboine Park's celebrated mystery man.

But after what happened to him recently in the park and what the event exposed, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy -- the new private managers of the park -- probably wish he had remained that way.

It was last August when I first identified the mysterious artist whose flourishes of coloured chalk and inspiring inscriptions on the sidewalk on the south side of the footbridge delighted passersby.

Earlier this month, a year after that column appeared, park security summoned police to evict the 26-year-old part-time bartender, blogger and street artist.

So what had Hnatiuk -- all 125 pounds of him -- done to warrant the arrival of two police cruisers and the threat of arrest? Well, armed with a piece of chalk, a hat on the ground and a couple of small signs asking passersby to support local art, he was accused of busking without permission on private park property. Or was it panhandling on public park property without permission?

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy, which took over operations of the city's largest park on Jan. 1, and attending police officers seemed to have trouble figuring that out.

What they did know is Hnatiuk had been warned the month before about not having a permit to busk, although that's not what they would get him on.

On the spot that day -- in more ways than one -- and in the course of searching for what they could charge Hnatiuk with, a police-officer-turned-art-critic gratuitously questioned whether Hnatiuk's unfinished sidewalk work was art.

Mercifully, the cop didn't describe it as graffiti, but he came close. The officer said Hnatiuk was "defacing" property. By that time, whether it was private or public property didn't matter to the confused officer. And, as with park security, whether Hnatiuk was busking or panhandling seemed immaterial, too.

"It's virtually the same as panhandling," the officer said of busking.

You should know, as the cop did, that Hnatiuk was openly tape-recording all of this. Here's a flavour of the conversation -- or should that be confrontation -- when three police officers, backed by three park security staff, approached Hnatiuk on his sidewalk "canvas."

Beginning with how Hnatiuk responded to a question about why he was using chalk to protest the eviction edict from Assiniboine Park Conservancy.

"They won't let me do my art here," Hnatiuk told the cop.

"And why would they let you do your art here?" the cop retorted snidely.

Actually, last May, Hnatiuk received a letter from a parks employee thanking him for inspiring the conservancy to hold a sidewalk chalk-drawing event, but he didn't bother to tell police that.

"It's a public space, is it not?" was Hnatiuk's response to the cop questioning his use of the sidewalk.

"And they're saying it's a private space," the cop said, referring to what park security told him.

"That's not the issue," the cop continued, "whether it's private or public, OK? The issue is you're defacing property here."

After taking a time out to go back to his cruiser and do some bylaw research, the cop decided "defacing" property wasn't the issue after all. Posting a sign in a park was. So was carrying on a commercial activity and "petty trespassing." The officer piled on one more potential charge.

"If you don't go, we will be charging you with cause disturbance."

Hnatiuk left without being charged, but not before police forced him to hand over his busking signs.

After taking several days to recover from the experience, Hnatiuk deemed the incident a serious assault on artistic freedom in Winnipeg.

But when we spoke later, he acknowledged there was more to it. To me, what happened is an example of the time-worn issues of the arrogance -- and ignorance -- of power.

And a bumbling bureaucracy.

A bureaucracy whose spokesman initially told me in reference to Hnatiuk that panhandling is illegal. Then acknowledged panhandling is legal, but said Hnatiuk was busking and that was against "established" conservancy policy. When pressed to produce the policy on busking, the spokesman backed off, saying "a specific busking policy, busking is really something we haven't had to address up to this point..."

What the incident exposes is an attitude exemplified by what park security told police.

That the park has become private property.

It isn't. The park remains a precious public space and a public trust. One the city has entrusted the Assiniboine Park Conservancy to operate in a way that treats the people who visit there with the courtesy and respect they deserve.

That means all the people. All the time.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2012 B1

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