Creators of crab art say they are getting hammered on payments promised by the city

A fair demand or shellfishness?


The crabs are mostly gone. The artists, however, are getting steamed.

A handful of artists who crafted the crustaceans that were displayed around Baltimore this year say city officials are reneging on a promise to pay them a cut of the sculptures' sale.

More than 170 crabs, from the "Have a Nice Bay" crab to "The Crabby Raven," adorned public spaces to raise money for city schools as part of the Crabtown Project.

Many will be sold at auction tomorrow night.

Under their contract, artists whose crabs are auctioned are entitled to 10 percent of the highest bid.

But the contract is silent on sculptures sold before auction - as about 30 have been - and the city says it isn't shelling out.

Just this month, the Johns Hopkins University spent $30,000 to keep its crab, which is dressed as a lacrosse player.

"It's basically a technicality," said Christopher Winslow, a muralist whose "Checkers the Taxi Crab" was pre-sold last month. "I wasn't even consulted. It's sort of like the artist was a second-class citizen."

Winslow and a group of others said they were glad to help city schools and participate in a project that drew attention to public art.

Still, they said they feel betrayed by an agreement that, at best, was unclear.

"It's not about the money," said Winslow, whose yellow crab with black-and-white checker trim had headlights for eyes and sat on a pair of wheels. "But to be treated like this isn't nice at all."

City officials countered that the extra stipend applied only to crabs sold at auction and said they made it clear that prior sales were possible and encouraged. Each artist who took part received a $1,000 commission.

"The agreement language with the artists is very clear," said David Costello, director of Mayor Martin O'Malley's Office of Community Investment. "Nobody was coming into this with the expectation of making lots of money."

Costello said his staff heard complaints from only three artists.

The city's contract, which states that the Crabtown Project owns the copyright of the crab, reads: "Should the crab described in this agreement be sold at auction, [the] artist will be paid an additional 10 percent of the ultimate auction price paid for this crab."

Baltimore's crabs, which stood about 5 feet tall, were the latest in a parade of animal sculptures that have been trotted out in cities across the country.

In 1999, Chicago was overrun with painted cows. Cincinnati's sidewalks had pigs. It was lizards in Orlando, Fla.

Baltimore's first foray into the craze came in 2001, with the Fish Out of Water project.

The crabs have raised about $275,000 for city schools, and Costello said he expects another $500,000 from the live auction tomorrow and a subsequent Internet auction.

The city will ask artists to donate their 10 percent cut to the program in exchange for a tax deduction, he said.

Artist and belly dancer Beppi Isbert of Baltimore said she enjoyed putting together her "Old Bay Crab," which was stationed along Pratt Street and also sold before auction.

However, she said she put a lot of time into its design and, after it was finished, frequently had to undo the work of vandals.

"I don't really think it's right that we don't get compensated for it," Isbert said. "It's a nice chunk of change that would definitely help struggling artists."

Local companies paid $3,000 to sponsor each crab. Companies could also choose to spend $7,500 to underwrite a project and purchase it after the sculptures were taken down.

Most of the 30 or so crabs that were sold in advance of the auction were purchased much earlier this year with the $7,500 fee.

Since then, however, other firms have been jumping in to snap certain crabs off the auction block. Hopkins, which initially paid only the $3,000 underwriting fee, now plans to keep its "LAX Crab" in a prominent space, out of the weather, said Salem Reiner, the school's director of community affairs.

Reiner said he had not heard of the dispute.

"That's unfortunate, and I hope that the Crabtown Project and the artists work something out," he said. "This is mostly important as a way to help schools."

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