Banksy exhibits in Toronto divide fans of secretive street artist
The 'Saving Banksy' Toronto exhibit is seen in Yorkville Village in Toronto, on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
TORONTO -- Back-to-back Banksy exhibits featuring works by the secretive street artist are unfolding in Toronto with observers torn over the way his subversive messages are being portrayed.
Neither shows are endorsed by the urban art darling, known for cheeky stencils and illicit, politically charged graffiti that often take aim at the establishment.
The first is a free, open-air show in tony Yorkville Village, where two pieces have been installed amid a luxury retail strip home to designer brands that include Chanel, Tiffany & Co., Dolce and Gabbana, and Prada.
The second is set to take over a factory space in an up-and-coming neighbourhood billed as an emerging art hub, but is a heavily promoted affair from Live Nation and Starvox Exhibits with a $35 entry fee that some have balked at.
"I just wish it was more accessible," bemoans Banksy fan and Hamilton street artist Richard Mace. "It's not something he would do. He wouldn't put on a show like that and if it was his own show, I'm assuming it would be a free show and you'd get something very different from it."
The North American premiere of "The Art of Banksy," beginning Wednesday and running to July 11, is a $35-million exhibit of 80 original works curated by Banksy's former agent Steve Lazarides.
It's set to include famous images "Balloon Girl," in which a young girl is letting go of a heart-shaped balloon; "Flag Wall," described as an "urbanized take on the famous picture of soldiers raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima;" and "Laugh Now" -- words emblazoned on a sandwich board slung over a monkey.
Lazarides says he hasn't spoken with Banksy in the last decade but knows what he probably thinks of the show, which has also visited Tel Aviv, Melbourne, Auckland and Amsterdam.
"I'd imagine he's annoyed in the fact that it's not him that's controlling it but I don't always necessarily think that artists are the best people to stage retrospectives of their work," says Lazarides.
"I've been there looking at it for the last 20 years so I'm not looking at it through the same eyes as his. He's not sanctioned it, I've not asked him, but I think he belongs to the general public and the general public have made him who he is and they deserve to see these works."
These are not Banksy's street pieces, he adds, condemning the dealers and opportunists who have removed Banksy pieces from public view in order to sell them for hundreds of thousands of dollars to private collectors.
"I have a pathological hatred for people that take stuff off the street," says Lazarides, noting the exhibit features art specifically made for gallery display and purchase.
"The stuff that's made for the street is designed for the street, not for like, one owner to take and derive pleasure from.... The more people who go around and take pieces down by people like Banksy, the poorer cities become because they don't have these artworks on their walls."
It's a different story over in Yorkville, where an exhibit that began earlier this week puts the focus squarely on Banksy's illicit work until Monday.
The star of the show is a 2.3-metre by 2.7-metre painting known as the "Haight Street Rat," which was cut from the side of a San Francisco building back in 2010 when Banksy visited during the premiere of his documentary, "Exit Through The Gift Shop."
Art collector Brian Greif says he spent more than $40,000 of his own funds to save the piece, noting that most of the other graffiti from that time was defaced or destroyed. He documented his efforts in the Netflix documentary, "Saving Banksy."
"If we don't take measures to save some key pieces they'll be gone forever. It'll be the only art movement where all the important pieces by the primary artists disappear or were destroyed," says Greif, who has spent the past two and a half years bringing the piece to 14 cities, with locations as varied as art galleries and libraries.
He has two criteria for display: the event must be free and open to the public, and the venue must also exhibit work by local artists to bring awareness to street graffiti.
The fact it is now on display in one of Canada's most exclusive neighbourhoods is not lost on Greif, who says he refused a private collector's offer of $1.7 million for the piece. He notes that one of the first exhibits was in the lobby of the U.S. Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles.
"It's owned by a massive bank and a massive international property company and so when they reached out to us, at first I said: 'There's no way. I'm not going to put it there'," says Greif.
"And Eva Boros who was the co-executive producer of ('Saving Banksy') said, 'We should absolutely put it there. We're putting it in enemy territory.... We're going to put Banksy artwork right in front of them."'
Greif says he has not heard from Banksy about the tour, but is in contact with Banksy's collaborators and "takes direction from them."
"I'm conflicted at times about: Did I do the right thing in taking this down? Am I doing the right thing by showing it? I'm always encouraged by the public reaction and the reaction from the local artists that are involved."
Toronto graffiti artist Alexander Bacon said he was happy to be among the local artists being showcased at the Yorkville event, but admits he's not a fan of seeing graffiti art removed from the street, even if it's meant to preserve the work.
"I'm kind of on the 'live and die on the streets' (side of the argument)," says the 43-year-old Bacon, who started at age 16. "It's part of the magic. It's not permanent, it's out there, you don't expect it to last."
The other Banksy showcase from Starvox and Live Nation bothers him, too, for its "very corporate feel."
Indeed, the slick production will include souvenirs and trinkets for sale, says Starvox founder Corey Ross.
"We will allow everybody to exit through the gift shop," he quips. "Absolutely, there will be wonderful things that they can purchase."
That leaves L.A. street artist and sometime Banksy collaborator RISK uneasy: "That kind of sucks for Banksy," he says.
But he does see room for some corporate support of street art, such as the way Greif has enlisted sponsors in preserving and promoting "The Haight Street Rat."
"We need the support, we need help. It's really cool when they get behind a real artist and support them rather than a corporation using their in-house artist and duplicating what we do," he says.
"People don't realize we do this for a living, this is what we do to support our families and it's important to us."