OUT OF THE BOX - A Place Where Nothing Is As It Seems
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When I set out to review BANKSYLAND, the unauthorized Banksy exhibition coming to Portland this month, I knew it would be complicated to write about. But I didn't anticipate that it would be this complicated.
To begin with, it's nearly impossible to have a conversation about Banksy's work without it being overshadowed by what other people and the art market have done to it. At this point in his career, Banksy's name conjures up associations with auction houses, million dollar price tags, and egregious profiteering. There will always be an inescapable incongruity to any of these unauthorized shows. They involve turning the least commodifiable art form (street art) into a commodity without the artist's participation, permission, or profit. Banksy himself commented on the practices of gross commodification and commercialization in his 2015 project Dismaland, which BANKSYLAND unironically seems to be referencing with its name and typeface.
Currently, there are at least four ticketed-entry unauthorized exhibitions of Banksy’s work touring the globe (or claiming to be touring the globe, but more on that later). It’s easy to dismiss these as nothing more than bald-faced opportunism, but what intrigued me about BANKSYLAND specifically, and the reason I was interested in writing about it, was the announcement that proceeds from the show would be going to fund arts education. It sounded so straightforward in the beginning.
When I spoke to BANKSYLAND's curator, Elle Miller, she told me that when her kids attended Portland Public School, "their school district only had an art teacher because our PTA raised the money to pay for their art teacher. Education is lacking, and there are kids who don't necessarily connect with academics for whom art is life saving," she said, identifying herself as one of those kids. While putting together the show, she established a 501(c)3 called One Thousand Ways to act as the philanthropic arm of the planned twenty-two city international touring exhibition. "If I'm sharing art with people, I want to pay that forward in any way that I can," she said of her laudable intentions. "So my goal is to use the proceeds from every city to fund art grants in education in those cities."
When I asked if One Thousand Ways would be operating as a funding body to which organizations could apply for arts education grants or if it would simply be identifying organizations that it wanted to donate to, she said she hasn't quite worked that out. She mentioned that she also might want to give money to emerging artists. One Thousand Ways doesn't appear to have a clear philanthropic mission, as yet. Nor is there any transparency as yet around the way the nonprofit is structured, who serves on its board, or who is drawing salaries from it—all things that every nonprofit is obliged to make public.
This isn’t the only aspect of One Thousand Ways that is murky. The BANKSYLAND website describes the exhibition as “produced by One Thousand Ways: an international experiential arts collective specializing in innovative immersive events throughout the globe.” Yet when we spoke, Miller identified herself as the curator and didn’t respond when I asked about the advertised “global team.”
Miller—who did curatorial work at PS1 after getting her degree in fine art and has since worked in the world of commercial art directing—made multiple references to the financial investment she made in the show. When I inquired further she said that it is "self-funded via the 501(c)3, via myself." In trying to get clarity around this, and around how the self-funding would affect charitable proceeds, details became cloudier. "I would recoup expenses," she said, "and people who work for 501(c)3s can take a salary." Miller expressed a high degree of uncertainty around financial structure. I followed up by asking what would become of the remaining funds: “The truth is I need to get my head around that. I find that aspect of it a part I still need to very heavily educate myself on.”
Though Miller has described her intention to donate some of the show’s proceeds in multiple interviews (here, here, and here), that statement appears nowhere in the press release or on the website. In fact, in both of those places, One Thousand Ways is referred to as the above-mentioned “arts collective,” not a nonprofit. As of this writing, One Thousand Ways doesn’t appear in any of the public nonprofit databases. This could be because the filing is so new or because it hasn’t been finalized. Either way, transparency around these issues is essential in an era when charities are routinely called out for vanishingly small percentages going toward their stated goals. As BANKSYLAND continues its tour, my hope is that Miller will update the website with additional information and offer more transparency regarding her charitable mission.
I was heartened to see the logo for Americans for the Arts prominently featured at the bottom of the BANKSYLAND website along with the One Thousand Ways logo, assuming that Miller had partnered with them to help distribute the funds. When I asked her how they were involved, she said, "Not involved. That's one of the organizations I'm considering working with." Their name is mentioned again on the checkout page when purchasing tickets for the show. Where it calculates your total purchase it asks, "Donate $5 to support Arts Education and Funding? Support Americans for the Arts's mission to build recognition and support for the extraordinary and dynamic value of the arts." I followed up with Miller to ask for clarity around these optional donations—Are they part of the proceeds going toward local art communities?—but I received no reply.
The opacity surrounding the exhibition extends in every direction. According to the website, the show is scheduled to travel to Honolulu on May 13th ("First Banksy show to ever hit the islands. On sale now," reads a February Instagram post) and then to Seattle on June 10th. "We have Honolulu listed as a potential location but I don't know if I'm going to do it," Miller told me. This is, despite the fact that tickets are currently on sale for that show.
When we spoke, Miller had not yet secured venues for any cities on the tour beyond Portland, which may explain why Seattle's is described as "a secret downtown location," and why ticket holders are told they "will receive event location approximately 2 weeks before event opening." She said she won't have any trouble nailing down Seattle given how successful the Portland stop has been. Despite the hefty ticket prices—$22 for students and kids 6+, $29 for general admission, and $59 for the VIP experience (not including transaction fees)—the Portland show gets 40-50 visitors per hour.
It got me thinking: if the success of the Seattle stop rests on the success on the Portland stop, what did the success of Portland, the first stop, rest on? I referred to the press release that the nonprofit One Thousand Ways sent to the wire service on February 17th to drum up ticket sales and media coverage in Portland. It's titled, "Largest Ever Exhibition Tour of Infamous Artist, BANKSY, Kicks Off in April." One of BANKSYLAND's competitors, another unauthorized show, bills itself as the "largest exhibit of Banksy art ever assembled" with 100 original works and 750,000 visitors. Yet another, claims to have 80+ authenticated works by Banksy and 3.5 million visitors. So, what makes BANKSYLAND the "largest ever exhibition tour"? It isn't the number of original or authenticated works, nor is it the number of visitors. Are they perhaps counting the number of cities announced for the tour? If so, it's difficult to make that claim when you only have one location secured. If they’re measuring the size of the physical exhibition, the website claims that it spans “more than 25,000 square feet,” though the Portland show occupies a space less than half that.
Many of the images featured in the press release—which get picked up by media outlets for articles, drawing further publicity and selling more tickets—are computer renderings of the show that bear no resemblance to the experience itself. These are the same images used on the front page of BANKSYLAND's website and in its sizzle reel. And even now that the Portland show has been installed, the organizers haven't replaced the computer renderings with real photographs. Why is the simulation preferable to the reality?
All that said, as an unabashed fan of Banksy's work, I was willing to separate the organizational missteps and the marketing sleight of hand from the show itself. Excited to see his work in person, I went in with an open mind.
When you walk into BANKSYLAND, you are greeted by an installation of six flat-screen monitors that play a looping video of the glitching Banksyland logo, while a loud spray paint sound effect permeates the space. On the left wall, three large-scale text-based works display quotes from the artist that the curator(s) liked and decided to have printed on canvas. Entering any exhibition, the first objects you encounter are often designed to give you a sense of what you're about to see. By this metric, the curator(s) have succeeded in setting our expectation that the show is heavier on “Banksyland” than it is on Banksy.
A lot of the space is taken up by objects that the show's curators created: video projections and compilations of the artist's work, 3-D fabrications of the artist's 2-D work, photographs of the artist's street work printed on paper or canvas, and another framed video loop of the Banksyland logo for good measure.
In an interview with Art Focus, Miller explained why many of the pieces in the show were created, or recreated: “When people come to our space…to understand the work of Banksy, we don't have the wall in front of us where he's done that larger than life Love is in the Air, right, so we can show people images of that. And we created this three-dimensional piece”—she says referencing the fabricated sculpture inspired by the two-dimensional work—“not to suggest that that's his, but to create a sort of large visual of it to give people the feelof that piece—the visual of it—and what he's intending with it...we're interpreting it, just to bring the intent of it to life for people."
I was curious how visitors felt about these interpretations. I spoke to one who told me, "It's clear with a lot of these exhibitions that they aren't necessarily the original materials," she said, comparing it to a traveling Van Gogh experience that recently came to town. "But, at the same time, they're interesting and I learned something. I thought it was valuable and a good way to spend a Wednesday night in Portland, for sure."
She and I also talked about the confusion around the ways some of the work was presented in the show. "There were some pieces on canvas or cardboard that were attributed [to Banksy] but that he hasn't taken credit for," she said. "Some of the more sculptural pieces were created by the exhibit—and those were labeled—but if you didn't catch it..." she trailed off. "I know enough about it, but it wasn't always the most clear." I, too, was perplexed by the fact that the 3-D fabrications and the pieces created for the show are listed as “Banksyland permanent collection,” yet one of the pieces that the curators said they put together—a suitcase full of ten pound notes with Lady Diana's face on them instead of the Queen's—was listed as "Private Collection, London." It's also unknown if the "Di-faced Tenners" in the suitcase were originals or reproductions.
One of things I most appreciated about the show is that it draws viewers' attention—with varying degrees of success—to Banksy's more socially conscious works, which many visitors may not be familiar with. There is an area dedicated to the The Walled Off Hotel, a social intervention that Banksy designed in the form of a working hotel in Palestine. It takes on ideas of British colonialism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has generated the type of rich debate and disagreement that only good art can. A perfect curatorial opportunity to delve deeply into the geopolitical implications of Banksy’s activism, it was represented instead by a few poorly framed prints of photographs—versions of which can be found on the hotel's website—and two sentences of wall text embedded in a paragraph about the artist’s work in Gaza.
On the other hand, the same visitor told me, “The videos about [Banksy’s] work with refugees in the Mediterranean were really impactful and fascinating." She added that after seeing the show, she went home and made a direct contribution to the cause.
I was surprised to discover that even the works I was most looking forward to seeing—original street works and components of installations created by Banksy—felt lifeless in a gallery setting under glass. This isn’t the fault of the curators or the show; I imagine I would have a similar experience seeing them anywhere other than where the artist had originally placed them, which is to say: where they were meant to serve their purpose.
To my mind, one of the least-appreciated and greatest virtues of Banksy's work is how site-specific it is. Take, for example, the piece featuring a girl using a bicycle tire as a hula-hoop (not featured in the show). Banksy stenciled it onto the side of a building in Nottingham, England—home to one of the oldest bicycle companies in the world—next to an actual bicycle whose rear wheel had been stolen. It requires a certain perversity to rip that work away from the specific place and the specific audience that the artist intended for it, as was done by an opportunistic gallery owner to make money from it. That piece, like most of Banksy’s street art, can't properly be evaluated or appreciated in a private collection or in a gallery space because it has become entirely decontextualized, drained of its reason for existence.
But here's the rub: no one seems to care. As I was leaving the show, there was a line of people waiting to get in. I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me sad. It does. For more reasons than we have time or room for here.
There's certainly an argument to be made that BANKSYLAND provides an experience for members of our community who wouldn't otherwise seek out art. I remember Miller telling me about one of the reasons she wanted to put on this show: "I just wanted people to see art because I came from a place where I didn't have access to it growing up. And when I did get access to art, it changed my life." As an arts writer and arts activist, I believe fundamentally in the value of exposing as many people to art as possible, as well as in its ability to shift people's perceptions of the world. But it's important, when we have this conversation, not to equate availability with access. In this case, tickets for a family of four—two adults and two kids—comes to $105.50, which is financially prohibitive for many people who don't already have access to art.
Another argument can be made that, in our struggling arts economy, BANKSYLAND is a model for redistributing wealth within our community. Some of the people who are paying thirty or fifty bucks for a ticket aren't turning up to other gallery shows in town or purchasing art from the studios of local artists, and might otherwise be spending that money on dinner and a movie. Isn't it a boon if some of it can be redirected to arts education or to emerging artists from historically excluded communities?
But then I wonder: if the ultimate goal is to increase support for and appreciation of the arts, is this the best way to do it? Doesn't it include nurturing a certain level of connoisseurship, which necessarily involves a reverence for an artist's contributions and a belief that they should be directly compensated for their work? Doesn't it involve developing an understanding of who is profiting from an artist's labor and the ability to discern what is real from what is fabricated?
During Banksy's residency in NYC, the artist set up a stall in Central Park—manned by an unassuming older gentleman—and filled it with his smaller spray painted works on canvas. Only customers who flipped them over would see that they were signed by the artist. Each piece, worth around $25,000 to the art market, was priced at $60 (though one patron haggled the price down to $30). When it was time to close up shop, the majority of pieces went unsold. The moral of the story is that people are more likely to pay for something that reminds them of a Banksy than they are to buy an actual Banksy that is right in front of their face. And that's because the nonsense that surrounds his art has nearly occluded the art itself, unless you're willing to pay very close attention.
BANKSYLAND is selling skate decks and posters and t-shirts with their logo on it, which Miller describes as "referential to [Banksy's] work." When I asked her how sales were going she said, "Everything went the same day, so I'm working on getting more merch."
BANKSYLAND is on view at The Factor Building through May 8th.
This piece is co-published by OUT OF THE BOX and Oregon ArtsWatch
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