So, you recently exhibited French photographer and man of the moment JR…
I gave JR his first show in London, so we’ve been working together since 2008. I always swore I’d never represent anyone who did photography. He used to email me stuff and I would send it straight to the bin. That went on for at least a year.
So what changed your mind?
His Women are Heroes project. Very disarming portraits… He’s striding from strength to strength, he’s even in museums now.
Do you think artists such as JR and street art in general is more accessible?
See, I wouldn’t even call him a street artist, it’s so far removed. The artists I work with are just contemporary artists that are working in a slightly different medium. I had a big argument with Basel because they described it as “mere street art”. I mean JR is doing fucking museum shows all around the world and selling to some of the biggest collectors in the world. The prejudice of the art world runs deep.
You refer to yourself as an accidental gallerist, the art world can be very cliquey, there are all these codes. How do you make it work?
By not giving a flying fuck about what the art world thinks. As long as the work is good enough, people gravitate towards it. Time and time again, Banksy, JR, Jonathan Yeo, Conor Harrington, these people went from being fairly obscure, to being incredibly successful. Someone like Jonny is now a preeminent portrait artist of his generation. Banksy can sell 200,000 tickets from hanging a piece of shit off a crane. It’s become a massive scene, and this is despite the art world.
Banksy can sell 200,000 tickets from hanging a piece of shit off a crane.
I had a massive falling out in Turkey on Monday when a journalist turned up and said, “well the art world just thinks the scene is over.” Well, fuck you and fuck the art scene. People’ve been saying this for the last 15 years, every step of the way we have been doing what they say is impossible.
And there are still people who say that street art doesn’t belong in a gallery...
And my argument is that if you take it to its logical conclusion, then the only people that can ever be street artists in that case are the sons and daughters of the rich and famous, because they’re the only people that wouldn’t need to make any money. So how does that make it a bad thing that these guys make work for galleries to facilitate their passion? It is probably the purest art form you can get. They are making shit to sell shit to go and pursue their dream of putting stuff on the street. That’s what JR does, he makes the commercial work, not so he can go and live in a fat mansion somewhere, but so he can continue to travel the world and make bigger and better projects. Banksy was the same.
It is probably the purest art form you can get
I think this label of ‘street art’ which has been proportioned to these artists was a lazy journalistic term to the point at which Antony Micallef was being lumped in with it.
What about “Urban Art”?
Oh that one really winds me up, so what does that mean? Art that was made in the city? That would incorporate about 90% of the art made globally.
It is a very auction house-y term, are they trying to formalize a scene?
It stands for the ghettoisation of the scene, it is almost belittling to the artists by lumping everyone together, a one-size-fits-all outlook… My theory is that the good work should sit in the contemporary auctions, if it’s not good enough to be in a contemporary catalogue then it shouldn’t be at auction. It’s simple.
The funny thing is, is that the only people who seem to hold this prejudice to it, is the art world. And when I say the art world I don’t mean the collectors. I went into a collector’s house the other day and I saw an Anish Kapoor, a Francis Bacon and some other very serious artists hanging alongside four or five pieces we sold to him. The only people that street art’s popularity really seems to affect, seems to be art journalists, and sniffy galleries that are worried about their stranglehold on the market.
People like Banksy are reaching a sort of superstardom, there are very few successful contemporary artists that have that reach…
There are virtually none. You have Damien Hirst, Murakami, Jeff Koons. The art world don’t like it ’cos they missed it.
That takes us back however to the art world not liking things because they’re popular. And sometimes things are populist because people like them, not because they’re overly commercial.
At what stage do legality issues come into play for your artists?
Number 1 rule: Don’t get caught. Simple.
It is difficult to get arrested now, it was easier to get in trouble 15 years ago. Nowadays they’re slapping preservation orders on this work or chipping it off the wall to sell it. It is a very different scene to what it once was. Although that is very much dependent on where you are and what message you are trying to project. A pretty picture in Shoreditch is very different to political graffiti in Syria.
How do these artists get recognised? Are they being picked up for work that they’re not supposed to be doing? At what stage does it tip over?
One phrase that Banksy came out with that I really agree with is, “Every city gets the graffiti it deserves.” If it has a very draconian policy towards its people then the artists are going to have to be very quick, which means you’re not going to get pretty work. If you want to know how it really works, you need to look at a social breakdown across the past few years. In Athens these days the guys are painting fucking murals the size of an office block because the police just don’t care, they have far bigger problems on their hands.
Every city gets the graffiti it deserves — Banksy
Do these foreign markets appeal to you as a gallerist?
We’re already pretty global anyway, we sell all over the world, we do shows all over the world. It is difficult to do without coming in looking like a colonialist. When we have done them, even in the States, we have been very mindful to invite the artists and explain what we’re doing. In New York I went to see all the old train painters and explained that we weren’t disrespecting them, it was an homage to what they gave birth to and they all came and supported it.
And what is your stance on these ownership battles that are taking place over work on the street?
It’s wrong. It was painted for the good of the general public, not for the wealth of an individual. They’re never gonna get authentication for these pieces anyway so for all intents and purposes they’re worthless, and my mum could have painted it. A Banksy stencil isn’t the most complicated thing in the world to replicate.
Do you ever get called in for verification stories?
People have asked me on several occasions and I have been offered seven-figure sums. I refuse. It makes the city a visually poorer place, and if people can start monetizing it there will be nothing left of any cultural value. I’m up for wanton acts of vandalism but I am not up for acts of vandalism for commercial gain.