After travelling to Amsterdam, Auckland, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Melbourne, Miami, Sydney, Tel Aviv and Toronto and being admired by more than 750,000 visitors worldwide, the world’s largest touring collection of Banksy artworks, astutely titled The Art of Banksy, has come to the UK and will stay in the London’s West End, near the enchanting Covent Garden, until November 2021.
The exhibit features over 70 original and authenticated Banksy artworks, canvasses, sculptures, unique prints and limited-edition pieces from the notoriously anonymous artist from Bristol, all mainly dated between the years 1997 to 2008 and all on loan from private collectors.
The iconic pieces showcased includes Kissing Coppers, Girl with Balloon, Brace Yourself and also Banksy’s Di-Faced Tenner dedicated to Diana, Princess of Galles.
Unless any other exhibit about a living artist, The Art of Banksy is not authorised by Banksy himself and not organised in collaboration with the man, and so we spoke with the curators to find out what it’s like to organise Banksy exhibits without ever getting to meet Banksy.
We first pinned down The Art of Banksy’s London co-presenter Sean Sweeney for a few minutes to discuss the difference between graffiti art and vandalism, which in his opinion is that “graffiti is always going to be interesting and challenge you, whereas vandalism is disruption”.
Furthermore, Sean has remembered the genesis of the Di-Faced Tenner: in 2004, The Banksy of England printed over a million pound worth of £10 notes replacing the Queen’s face with Princess Diana and threw them to the (shamelessly lucky) crowds at the Reading Festival and Notting Hill Festival.
And then we also had a more in-depth conversation with Michel Boersma, producer of The Art of Banksy, about what to expect from the exhibit, why you should visit it and – last but not least – what it’s like to organise exhibits dedicated to somebody anonymous who could be just around that corner, mocking at you and doing ha ha.
Michel, how many Banksy exhibits have you organised so far?
The London one is the eighth. I’ve been involved with producing The Art of Banksy, since 2016. I’m a theatre producer with a background in theatre, concerts and family entertainment, and I got the opportunity to get involved with creating this exhibition for Melbourne, at first. And so I did Melbourne, Miami, Tel Aviv, Auckland, Toronto, Sydney and London, and next month we are opening a second collection in Chicago which will also go to San Francisco.
Is this why you’re using the American spelling “unauthorized private collection” in your leaflet?
Yes, because we toured the world, it’s global, and we chose that one from Miami, and then we implemented it afterwards. In some cities you need to adjust the logo a little, but yeah, we use the American spelling while adjusting the logo.
Why do you need to adjust the logo?
Oh, you need to adapt it to the local market in each city and country. Some like it a bit darker, and sometimes we say yes and sometimes we say no. Sometimes, when people want to reinvent the wheel, you just go like “Okay, this is how it works, let’s just keep it like this!”
How did you choose the best artworks for the exhibit and how did you “convince” the owners to lend them?
With some of the collectors, we don’t need to convince them at all – it’s just about giving them the opportunity to get the art to a wider audience, which is one of the reasons I’m involved in this; a lot of art comes from private owners, is treasured in their houses or in a warehouse, and this is an opportunity to show it to a wider audience. When we started out in Melbourne, you got a range of audience who wouldn’t normally go to museums, and a lot of collectors were first-time collectors, like people that are normally hesitant to go and see an art collection. But they still want to see Banksy, they want to see the beautiful things with their own eyes, instead of from a screen, in the documentary or in the newspaper.
Who is the typical Banksy art collector?
A lot of the collectors we work with are not rich people, but they invest in the legacy. They often bought it in the beginning when Banksy was just like starting out, and they bought it because they liked the images and they liked the style. Then, of course, we’re also dealing with investors who are rich and have multiple Banksy pieces and see it as an investment – but it’s a different way of looking at it. The main goal I see is to have a Banksy to show to a wider audience.
Why is The Art of Banksy different from the many other Banksy displays taking place around the world?
Here’s the thing, there are a lot of Banksy exhibitions out there that are called The Art of Banksy and we had to rebrand us completely because they were copying our promotional artwork. And when they catch up, we will change it over again. Seriously, it does take a lot of effort and it takes a lot of trust with the collectors to get the real artworks, so here’s where we are different: we don’t have fakes. We don’t have copies. We have originally authenticated Banksy artworks, and we don’t have anything that came up on the walls either. This is all art that has been sold by Banksy to collectors, and Banksy has been paid for it, the ownership has been transferred and has authenticity. A lot of the other exhibitions around have laser copies printed out, and I know certain pieces that are in their collections with numbering, are actually on the wall of their legitimate owners – so it’s all fake, it’s nothing real, while we actually even use real quotes from Banksy.
Where did you take the quotes from? He’s anonymous.
We took them from the quotes attributed to Banksy from his books, or anything mentioned in the Exit through the gift shop documentary video. We select the quotes per exhibit and layout because the layout changes for each building, and we’re often not in a standard situation. Here in London, we got this beautiful spot in the middle of Covent Garden, which is very central. It’s a basement and it was quite a challenge to get the exhibition in there because it’s one of the biggest collections we’ve done so far, it’s more than 70 pieces – and if you count everything together, we’re even above 100 pieces, and this is the smallest space where we’ve ever done that. A lot of people talk about the value of Banksy or just about another record-breaking sale in the auction, and it’s all about money for them, but what I hope you get out of this it’s about finding out what makes you feel happy, what makes you feel think, what makes you laugh – and also the inequality of it all. And, of course, the duality of Banksy’s world and his quotes about social inequality that slap you in the face.
What’s the question you’re most frequently asked from people when they know you organise Banksy exhibitions?
It’s the one that you also want to ask me and that you’re probably going to ask me in the next five minutes…
Haha. Do you mean “do you know who he is?“
Exactly! I don’t know obviously, and I think one of the things people don’t realise and that is part of the game is that they don’t actually want to know who he is.
Yeah, that’s probably true.
And it changes the way we see Banksy art – because if we knew that Mr X had done this, our perception would change. But we don’t know. So, who is Banksy? Is Banksy a person, is Banksy a group? It seriously doesn’t matter and it shouldn’t matter, but we’re all buying into this mystery, and we are also presented with the fact that we all ignore it because we don’t really want to know. Banksy is not involved in curating exhibits, he’s not interested – but the collectors are, and so we work with the collectors. I’m not involved here to talk from Banksy’s point of view, but I do know as a fact that he doesn’t want to do these exhibitions – he considers this like “Yeah, this is art, but it’s been done” – and so now he needs to do new things.
How do you think he managed to keep his anonymity until now?
I think there are many sides to this. I think for the general audience it’s much more enticing because it’s a sort of Robin Hood feel: you don’t know him, and therefore you like him because it’s like if he is one of us, instead of somebody from the art world. For him, I think it gives him a lot of freedom, he gets away with things that for you and I would probably mean to end up in jail. And what I like is that he does it in broad daylight: just put a high-face jacket on, put a van down, start working on a wall and nobody is bothering you or asking you a question.
What’s the most important lesson Banksy has taught the world?
I can’t say that, because you need to decide what his messages stand for. We don’t explain to you in our exhibition what he means. Very often it is clear what he means, but you would still be surprised from what you hear if you’re just standing there anonymously in the exhibition and listen to the people. It’s fascinating to see how ten people who visit the same exhibition see something completely different in the same images. It’s not clear cut – for me, it’s an eye-opening thing to see how different people react to the same piece of art and then interpret them in a completely different way.
Banksy has always given his art away from free in the street, and never claimed any royalty from people using his art to make money either. How does this match with charging people more than £20 to see his art on display?
If you remember in a certain part in this conversation, I said that he has sold the art to the collectors, and that’s the thing that the general audience doesn’t get.
I didn’t necessarily get it, in fact.
There is a world behind free art. It is like your free Facebook and your free… whatever it’s free.
“If you’re not paying for it, you become the product…”
With Banksy, the collectors are paying for your free art. He sells prints and unique pieces and whatever else he sells to collectors on a daily basis. And that’s the business of Banksy, but people don’t want to see it. The thing other than wanting to know who he is and not knowing is not wanting to know that there’s also money involved, exchanging hands. So, this is where I could normally get defensive, and I go like “Okay, wait a second, it’s a risk to put together a collection like this, it’s a huge risk: the building, the security, the insurance, the promotion, all that stuff. It’s an expensive thing to do, it’s not sure that it will make money, but it is like any museum that is for-profit: there’s money that needs to be returned and made by the same Banksy himself”. I mean, he doesn’t live on the streets, let’s be clear about that. He has sold each part of his art, each piece of this exhibition has been sold to the collectors by the real Banksy, and we haven’t taken anything that’s on a wall for free and ripped it off and then shown it to you and then asked you to pay for it.
Fair enough. In your opinion, what’s the difference between graffiti art and vandalism?
In a way, it’s like terrorism: who determines if somebody is a terrorist or a freedom fighter?
I love the metaphor.
It all depends on how you see life. Then, of course, there’s a slight difference between having graffiti just for the sake of defacing something, which is not what we’re talking about here. But beautiful graffiti really make the city come to life; graffiti art makes the dull corners of a city completely transformed by something beautiful that came out of a brain and makes you smile, makes you happy, or makes you think. So I don’t think graffiti art is vandalism, but I think another person will say “oh, it is, and then blah blah blah blah”. But just think about terrorism as opposed to fighting for freedom and you’ll get the inner duality of Banksy.
Are you witnessing a rise in young graffiti artists nowadays, or are the younger generations staying away from an activity that is intrinsically illegal and cannot be performed on a screen?
I think the thing that Banksy has done is to open up more seriousness to graffiti art, because apart from all the Robin Hood feeling, he’s part of the art establishment, whether he likes it or not, and everybody can have their own opinion about that one. I think he opened up graffiti as an art form, and it does inspire kids too, because a simple £10-spray paint can make you an overnight hero. I do believe there’s a lot of young kids around who are inspired by the feeling of “this is possible, and this is beautiful”.
Have you met any of these new overnight heroes?
I can be cynical about that, but it’s the same thing I think when I organise family entertainment: when there are kids coming to the exhibition, I do really genuinely hope that this will help them use their brains. I don’t care if they get a hammer or a marker or whatever, but please use your brain instead of just hanging on your phone; go and be creative. And I hope that exhibitions like ours but also other museums will open up their brains and then they will go like “Hey, yes, I can do this, too” and get their own spin.
Right, but graffiti art is still illegal.
Here’s, once again, the duality with Banksy: how illegal it is? Nowadays, in most of the cities where there’s suddenly a mural or Banksy and Banksy put it on Instagram, the city councillor in charge of that city will protect the Banksy in their city, and so the glass goes in front of the graffiti, and blah blah blah. So, it’s not illegal; well, for Banksy, it’s not illegal. And that’s the duality, it’s like he’s one of us, but then when you and I pick up a paintbrush… in court – because we will end up in court if we do that – then for us it is obviously illegal. I think street art is something from the ages, it’s not something that suddenly happened in the 1960s or 1970s, it was there in the Middle Ages, it was there in the caveman times, and so was it illegal at the time? Can you picture a bare-skin person getting arrested for doing that in the Stone Age?
Haha. Nice one!
Do you know what I mean? There’s always going to be a part of society that looks down on it – but what I like with Banksy is that the larger part still likes and enjoys it.
★ If you are in London, you can visit The Art of Banksy until November 2021
★ If you love Banksy, you may also find vaguely interesting this article which has clearly nothing to do with Banksy but is so sad and so hilarious at the same time that we have used Girl with Balloon as a cover image anyway and nobody has protested yet