Paper Mag: Marc Schiller on Commerce

The Original Link to Paper Mag is Here

Marc's Original Wooster Post is Here

Props to Crystal for the tip

Last year Marc Schiller wrote a blog for his site called "The Banksy Effect," in which he addresses the abrupt and remarkable changes that were taking hold in the London street-art scene. To Schiller, it appeared that after five years of just barely inching along, the market for street art in galleries had suddenly hit the roof, and the kinds of pieces that had gone unsold for years prior were selling at an insane rate and even crazier prices. Schiller could think to chalk it up to only one thing, or man, rather: Banksy, the Bristol-born stencil artist whose work went from streetscapes to auction house must-haves in a hot second, and who was fast becoming a major figure in the fine-art world.

"Soon after we published the blog, "Space Girl and Bird," a Banksy stencil created for a Blur CD cover sold at Bonhams auction house in London for $575,000 -- 20 times the estimate, making it the most expensive BANKSY ever sold at that time.

Back then, my thinking was that everyone was benefiting from this "Banksy Effect" -- artists, gallerists and collectors alike. But now things are a lot less clear. Still fueled largely by London-based buyers, the market for street art has in many ways become completely irrational.

In an effort to build on the successes of 2007, Bonhams mounted an auction earlier this year completely devoted to "urban art" featuring works not only by Banksy, but by other well-known street-scene names like FAILE, SPACE INVADER, SWOON and SHEPARD FAIREY. What was most astonishing about the auction was not that work by Banksy sold again at record prices. That was expected. What was astonishing was that a piece called "Moona Lisa" by NICK WALKER sold for over $100,000 when the original estimate was only $6,000, 10 times less than what it eventually went for. (Bonhams will stage another similar auction this month.)

I couldn't help but ask myself: "How the fuck can a Nick Walker sell for over $100,000?" It's not that Nick isn't a talented artist. He is. But $100,000? The price is not only astronomical, it's absurd. Again, only one explanation: the Banksy Effect. Art buyers at the Bonham's auction who couldn't even spell Banksy suddenly wanted to own one, while those who couldn't afford a Banksy wanted something that looked like one. And so Walker's "Moona Lisa" found a buyer who was willing to pay whatever it cost. That's when I realized that the Banksy Effect had taken a very different turn.

The current art-market bubble for street art is being fueled not only by the people who can afford a Banksy, but by those who can't. And this is perhaps where the problems begin. For this new group of buyers, attracted to the hype of street art, quality isn't the priority. It's the potential for a quick flip on the auction market. As one French gallerist said to me, "The largest impact of 'the Banksy Effect' has been an acceleration of a lot of poor-quality art sold in galleries, especially in London and Los Angeles. The market is now full of bad imitators."

But if there's one person, besides Banksy himself, who's benefited the most from the phenomenon, it's Banksy's gallerist, STEVE LAZARIDES. Owner of three popular street-art galleries in London and Newcastle, Lazarides (not without controversy) has built a premier roster of some of the best known and most talented street artists (ZEVS, DAVID CHOE, INVADER and JR, among others) and understands things that most Chelsea gallerists don't: With street-art, "street cred" is part of the artist's brand, and it needs to be protected at all costs. Lazarides and his artists work completely outside of the system. He doesn't pay for expensive booths at high-profile art fairs, nor does he take out ads for his artists in Artforum and Art in America. Most of his blockbuster shows are not in galleries, but in warehouses and alternative spaces. What Lazarides does extremely well is sell work. Lots of it. And he sells it to the people who read blogs, not Artforum.

But still, is the market for street-art truly as hot as it appears? When you look closely what you see is that (a) the only buyers putting up real cash are the Brits, and (b) the only real market for street art is in London. In the year and a half since I first wrote about "the Banksy Effect," the phenomenon has yet to cross the pond to New York. Indeed, New York has been a difficult market to crack for street artists. Work that will easily sell for $40,000 in London will only sell for half that amount, if at all, in New York. Lazarides, never one to sit idle, has attempted to change this by opening his own temporary gallery in New York's Lower East Side this September.

But the backlash has already begun -- the hype has reached such a level that if you're an artist looking to make it in the art world, being called a "street artist" isn't necessarily a good thing. In fact, artists who have made a name on the street are now starting to shun the label. The truth is that exceptional street artists don't need "the Banksy Effect." As New York gallery-owner Jonathan LeVine said to me, "The artists who continue to pay their dues will be the ones we're all talking about in 20 years time. The one's who are caught up in 'the Banksy Effect' will long be forgotten." And he's right."

[From top to bottom] Banksy: Garage wall in Highbury, 2004. Nick Walker: "Moona Lisa," 2006, Courtesy of Bonhams New York. Space Invader (Manhattan) and Swoon (Brooklyn), photographed by Luna Park.