There are approximately two hundred artists with permits to work on Jackson Square. They are all extremely different in their dress, life-styles, beliefs, attitudes, and talents. “On the fence,” the closest thing to organization is the Jackson Square Artists Association Committee. Its chairman, aside from being an artist, is a Captain in the New Orleans Fire Department. He signs his name “D. Nick.”
Richard “Dick” Nick has to explain to artists such things as why they cannot hang their paintings over the storefront windows of the Pontalba Buildings, or why they should not stand swearing in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. Once he had to persuade an artist not to pound nails into the side of the Cabildo. “It's two hundred years old,” he protested. ”So what? I'm only going to be here two months,” replied the artist. Jackson Square artists are two hundred individualists whom the city often looks upon as one. When one artist creates a problem, the bureaucracy goes into action and punishes all two hundred. It is up to Dick Nick and the Committee to protect the rights and privileges of the group.
It is also the Committee that tries to protect the tourist. A woman recently came to Nick in tears. After convincing her husband to put forth $12.50 each for portraits of their three children and cajoling the children into posing for two hours, the portraitist pointed out the small lettering on his sign, “plus binding.” The binding (glass and tape) brought the price to $20.00 each. The Committee has now formulated a resolution stating that maximum prices must be posted.
Dick Nick has a responsibility to the city, to the artists, and to the tourists. It is a time-consuming job for which is he paid nothing.
Aside from being the Jackson Square advocate and babysitter, he and his wife Dianne have three boys, Dick, Jr.; David; and Danny. (“All my kids' names start with ‘D.’”) The Community Standard interviewed the busy Mr. Nick about his role on Jackson Square.
Community Standard: How did you become chairman of the Jackson Square Arists Assocation Committee?
Nick: Every September we hold a general meeting of all the artists. You're nominated by the artists and the seven artists with the highest votes are elected to the Committee. Either the Committee decides who they want to be chairman or they pick the person with the highest vote.
Community Standard: What do the artists complain about most often?
Nick: There are a lot of complaints about spots.
Community Standard: How does an artist go about getting a spot on the fence reserved for himself?
Nick: After you buy your license from the city, you have to work on the fence sixty days to become eligible to draw for a spot. If an artist dies, leaves town, or doesn't work his spot sixteen days a month, the spot becomes available and the Committee has to post the spot three days in advance, telling what day and what time we will draw for that spot. All eligible artists put their names into a hat and we have a tourist pull a name out of it; whichever artist's name they pull out gets the spot after he shows his license to prove that he's been here sixty days.
Dick Nick tries to promote order “on the fence.”
Community Standard: Why must the work sixteen days a month to hold a spot?
Nick: The reason for this is so that the spots aren't held by people who just work on weekends. The fence is basically set up for full-time working artists.
Community Standard: How much can a successful artist make on the Square?
Nick: I don't know. It depends more or less on the gimmick.
Community Standard: Do the artists have to keep records?
Nick: We pay sales tax. What gripes me out there is that a carpenter doesn't pay sales tax, a physician never pays sales tax, a construction worker doesn't pay sales tax. He's selling his labor just like an artist. The city taxes an artist for his labor but they don't tax a physician or a lawyer or anybody else… I don't think it's fair. We pay sales tax on all materials to begin with.
Community Standard: What makes for success on the Square?
Nick: I would like to think it's a good artist but it's not. It's a good gimmick or cheap prices. I think the Square's come to a point where people are no longer buying something because they think it's nice; they're buying something because it's cheaper than something nice that they saw.
Community Standard: It wasn't always that way?
Nick: When I started out there, there were quite a few good artists, especially in portraits. In 1963 they were getting better prices than they are now. They're selling portraits out there for two dollars, three dollars, five dollars. I don't think a good artist can turn out a portrait for that price. I don't know of any good ones that do. It's the guy without much talent that can't get the fifteen or twenty-five dollar prices. He gets business by asking two or three dollars.
Community Standard: Don't you have rules and regulations?
Nick: Plenty of rules and that's the problem. We have no way of enforcing things; it's just a gentleman's agreement.
Community Standard: Can't you get artists to agree on the rules?
Nick: There are a lot of individuals out on that Square. It's probably as diverse as a bunch of individuals as ever assembled anyplace. We can't get people to agree on anything.
Community Standard: The city has spent millions of dollars in the form of the Superdome to benefit athletes. Have they been of much help to artists?
Nick: We've never been too successful with getting any help from the city. All they're interested in is getting their license fee. The general opinion in New Orleans is that artists are bums.
“We don't want… and nobody seems to understand this… reproductive art.”
Community Standard: Recently the city changed its interpretation of the regulations by giving a photographer, Jack Pickett, permission to exhibit his work on the Square. In an article in the States-Item, it was pointed out that you and the Committee were fighting this decision. Why does this upset you?
Nick: The news media is trying to make it a personal thing because this photographer is a good photographer. It's not a question of this one photographer, but the question is what the second photographer is going to do or what the twenty-seventh photographer is going to be selling. If he sees this guy doing a picture of the moon rising over the St. Louis Cathedral and it sells well for $15 or $25, this twenty-seventh photographer will take a picture like that and run them off and sell them for a dollar apiece. We don't want — and nobody seems to understand this — reproductive art. We don't want somebody to come in here with silk screens and run off these things by the hundreds. Or etchings — etching is a form of art, but if a guy comes in here with etchings — to start with, I don't even know if they are his etchings.
Our understanding was you had to do your own work here. You were supposed to do it on the street. When the city reinterpreted this law, no Committee member would take a stand on what is allowed out there because we found we were in violation of the law if we told somebody they couldn't come out with prints.
Community Standard: What do you and the Committee plan to do about this?
Nick: The Committee has been working very closely with the city for the past few weeks, ever since this thing exploded, and we're in the process of getting this law changed. I think this photographer was very sincere but if you let him out there then you have to allow the photographer with a camera that puts your face on a button for fifty cents. I think for any painter that puts any time in his work, the prices out there will drag so low, it would be ridiculous to do a good painting. It would be a lot easier to have a picture printed by a commercial printer and sell it as an original painting. That's what would go on and I think that would ruin the Square.
Community Standard: What style of painting do you do?
Nick: I like to use light and paint with oils. I don't know which style I have. I like Correggio and Rembrandt and the way they used light.
Community Standard: When did you begin to paint?
Nick: Out here, I started in 1963. I always painted, but the truth is that my sister was an artist out here first. She was a housewife and she went out and gave it a try and was successful at it. I figured I had as much talent as she had I figured I'd do it.
Community Standard: Being a fireman, father, and chairman of the Committee, when do you find time to paint?
Nick: I paint almost all the time I'm on the Square, I like to paint. I never paint at home or the firehouse. I just paint on the Square. I work a minimum of twenty days a month out there.
Community Standard: How does your firefighting career fit into this schedule?
Nick: I work as a fireman every third day, so I have the other two days off. I'm a Captain, assigned to Hook-and-Ladder #4 at the station at 317 Decatur Street.
Community Standard: Would you mind if your children wanted to be full-time artists on the Square?
Nick: Great! It's a good life.
Copyright © 1975–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.