Street view

Graffiti has existed since ancient times but it is only recently that is has entered the mainstream. Rebecca Atkinson reports on its role in museums
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Rebecca Atkinson
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Near the Museums Association’s former offices just off Brick Lane in east London, groups of bearded hipsters, retired culture vultures and tourists can often be seen on the side of the road listening to a tour guide. They are there to experience the area’s vibrant examples of street art.

Graffiti, once considered an urban blight, has entered the mainstream. Although it is still illegal to vandalise public property with tags and scribbles, the growing number of murals and public stencil art has spawned an international street art movement that has captured the public’s imagination and the attention of the commercial art market.

Global Street Art provides a platform for street artists in the UK and abroad. Its online archive features more than 80,000 photographs of artworks taken by artists and photographers, many of which have recently been published in a book, Concrete Canvas.

It has also organised more than 800 legal street murals since 2012, which account for about 50% of the street art in the Brick Lane area, as well as commercial projects for the likes of paint brand Dulux and consumer goods giant Unilever.

Lee Bofkin, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Global Street Art, is passionate about the importance of street art  and its impact on people and places.

“This art continues to evolve aesthetically but it’s also more technically sophisticated than it used to be,” Bofkin says. “And -public spheres are changing – people want more street art in their areas, they want colourful cities.”

Under the radar

As a contemporary artform, it’s natural that museums should take an interest in street art and its artists. Its appeal to young people (especially those traditionally excluded from museums) means graffiti-based outreach activities have proved successful for museums.

But the collection and display of street art is more problematic. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London has been collecting street art prints as part of its contemporary print collecting remit for more than a decade.

Its interest in these works stems from their influence on mainstream graphics as well as how they fit into the wider context of political communication through posters, protest and flyposting.

“It’s an important form of expression, especially for young people, and it’s good that they are able to see it reflected and given importance by the museum,” says Catherine Flood, the V&A’s curator of posters and political art.

Documenting street art is difficult, as much of it is created under the radar. But, as well as producing prints, many street artists document their work by taking photographs and sharing them on social media.

In 2012, the V&A attempted to digitally collect the graphic environment of the London Olympics by asking members of the public to upload images to the social media website Flickr.

Graffiti as a form of political protest was also explored in the Disobedient Objects exhibition (26 July 2014 – 1 February 2015) through the story of how anti-government graffiti sparked the Syrian revolution in 2011, and highlighting the ongoing use of politicised street stencils during the country’s civil war.

Syrian artists Aram Tahhan and Ibrahim Fakhri created Stencils of the Syrian Martyrs, which shows the faces of some of the activists killed since 2011. Although it’s a powerful message, the reality of creating such work during war is in stark contrast to viewing it in the safe surroundings of South Kensington, and so the museum also commissioned a film of Syrian graffiti activists demonstrating the techniques they use.
 
But graffiti’s power to change the visual environment and architecture, and its use as a means to claim back public space, does not always fit easily into a museum context.

“Context is so important and yet so challenging for curators with this sort of material,” Flood says.

One of the issues is defining what street art is. Graffiti, which is broadly used to describe tags and other quick means of expression, is a largely masculine activity associated with urban music and territorial gangs. Street art, as the name suggests, is the socially acceptable version of this, considered to have artistic merit and commercial potential.

But the street art scene is constantly evolving and encompasses a hugely diverse range of work, artists and practices.

Beyond Banksy

Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery doesn’t have a policy to collect or preserve street art, although it has previously organised the city’s street art festival and also hosted the V&A’s touring exhibition of prints in 2012-13.

The museum is funded by the local authority, and exhibitions officer Tristram Aver says its decision to hold the show was politically challenging, especially because the leader of the council had just vetoed graffiti in the city and removed legal sites.
“We had to show that the exhibition was about prints, which are the commercial part of artists’ street activity,” Aver says.

The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry also displayed the V&A’s touring street art exhibition and as part of this decided to work with six artists to explore the potential of the artwork.

“We tried to show this is more than -graffiti and that these are artists who just happen to be working on the street rather than in an art studio,” says Dominic Bubb, the Herbert’s exhibitions and touring officer.

The exhibition was popular, with 2,000 people at the launch, and brought in a different and younger audience. The museum has since acquired a number of examples of street art.

“Street art is really accessible as it’s often quite humorous and because it often deals with contemporary themes it’s a good way to bring our collections up-to-date,” says Martin Roberts, the Herbert’s senior curator.

One work added to its permanent collection is by the artist SPQR, and shows a group of police officers in riot gear queuing for ice- cream. Roberts says it fits with a number of collecting areas, such as peace and reconciliation as well as contemporary life.

Later this year, the Herbert will show works by Pahnl, an Oxford-based street artist, which will be created directly on its gallery walls. The works will be temporary, but so far the museum hasn’t considered how it might collect examples of street art made on the street.

This raises the issue that many institutions are grappling with: are museums the right place to display street art? Do they legitimise the artistic importance of works – or is it just about trying to “get down with the kids”?

The fact that street art exists on the fringes of society and is not intended to be mainstream suggests that, by the time -museums get wind of an artist, it probably is a bit old hat.

For example, Banksy, the world’s most famous street artist, is revered by the art market, greeting card companies and the public – but is disdained by some on the street art and graffiti scenes. For that reason, taggers have been known to destroy his work as soon as it appears.

“Banksy’s art is great – I’m definitely a fan,” says Bofkin, of Global Street Art. “The problem is that the media rarely talk about other artists who work outside and that makes his work a target.”

It is in Bristol, Banksy’s hometown, where the cultural significance of graffiti or street art is arguably most visible. Over the past two decades the city has fully embraced its reputation as the UK’s centre of street art and adapted its attitude and policies accordingly. Graffiti is seen as part of the city’s fabric and, rather than removing it, the council actively works to protect and preserve some of the murals created in the city.

Street art touches the local authority museum service in different ways. Tim Corum, the former deputy head of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives who has recently moved to the Horniman Museum in London, says the city is collecting information about street art as a social and political phenomenon.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has also brought street artists into its galleries, most notably with its 2009 Banksy versus the Museum exhibition, which was seen by 300,000 people.

“Our Banksy exhibition did very well,” Corum says. “But it was his concept of ‘brandalism’ and altering spaces that he explored in our museum rather than displaying street art.”

Collection issues

The museum service is also involved in a project called Grafitti Dialogue, which explores the relationship between street art and Bristol within a social history framework.

Corum believes that the most effective way for museums to explore street art is via collaborations with artists that “challenge and innovate and rebrand the organisation” – rather than through the display of prints, canvases or even chunks of wall.

“The problem museums have is an instinct to be curators and collect objects,” he says. “Actually, the most accessible [approach] is to try to capture the concepts, feelings and emotions behind street art. Street art is an ephemeral artform so taking it out of context can suck those things out.”

The museum does get calls asking if it would like “sides of houses” with works by Banksy and others on, but it has always said no. However, it has recently displayed two of Banksy’s works that were removed from the sites on which they were painted.

The first, Mobile Lovers, made headlines after a local boxing club on whose building it was painted tried to sell it to raise funds. The council attempted to stop the sale, despite the artist making it clear that he did intend the work as a gift to the struggling boxing club, and the museum stepped in until the issue was resolved (it was later sold).

Another work by Banksy, the Grim Reaper, is on display in M Shed while the boat on which it was painted is being refitted. So far, Bristol has resisted collecting prints and canvases.

“Because Bristol is known as the city of street art, the museum and archive service does spend time recording and exploring it, but it is a complex issue,” Corum says.

“It would be easy to collect canvases and prints that represent certain artists without considering where they come from or how they relate to the street. Street art is not a criminal activity or art – it’s part of the way communities make sense of places, and I’m not sure museums are necessarily the best places to record that.”

Whose art is it anyway?

Works by the artist Banksy now fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds at auctions. However, the commercialisation of street art does not always sit easy with the artists or their supporters.

In spring 2014, an exhibition called Stealing Banksy? in London claimed to explore the “social, legal and moral issues surrounding the sale of street art”. Entry cost £17.50 and artworks allegedly by the artist – including No Ball Games (2009), which had disappeared from its site in north London the previous year – were up for auction.

The exhibition was condemned by Banksy, who said in a statement that it was “disgusting [that] people are allowed to go displaying art on walls without getting permission”.

But the organiser, the Sincura Arts Club, part of the concierge company the Sincura Group, said: “Though we have been accused of many things during this project, we do not steal art nor do we condone any acts of vandalism or theft.”

The group has said that it “actively discourages” the removal of works from public view. It claims it helps the “salvage, restoration and sale” of works that have been legally removed and has not profited from the sale of such art.

According to the Art Newspaper, the group was in talks to open a museum dedicated to street art in a disused underground station, but it is unclear whether this is still on the cards.

No one from the organisation responded to Museums Journal requests for comment.

Update

11.02.2015

We said the Banksy versus the museum exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery received 30,000 visitors. In fact it was 300,000.


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