Stevio...LA LA Lovin' It?

I'm British-born Chinese from Bristol, UK. I’m LA-based. I’m a hip hop aficionado. After 15 years in London I moved to LA to pursue a new career and outlook on life.

Back in the 80s I was a DJ. In the 90s I contributed to the world's first street style exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. In 2011, I had my first interviews published. Today, I’m keeping busy with music, art, photos and writing.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

#UNleashed Magazine: "The Business of Street Art" #ArtInTheStreets

The Business of Art by Stephen Pang
(permission to republish kindly granted by UNleashed Magazine)

Space Girl and Bird, Banksy
Street art has its fans and detractors, but both were united in their amazement in 2007 when Bonhams, the British auction house, sold lot #299, an aerosol stencil painting on steel, for US$576,000. Of course, this was no ordinary street artist. This was Banksy and the painting was ‘Space Girl and Bird,’ commissioned by the UK pop group, Blur. Despite these credentials the estimated guide price was still 20 times less than the final hammer price.

This zealous bidding from an anonymous American buyer marked the beginning of the latest street art feeding frenzy. A few months later, Bonhams followed up this record-breaking event with ‘the world’s first street art auction’ featuring 100 works from both American street artists (Keith Haring, Faile, Shepard Fairey) and the Brits (Banksy, D*Face, Eine). But, how do works of your favorite street artists end up on the auction block and is it inevitable when art is treated like a commodity to be bought and sold for profit?

UNleashed Magazine spoke with people in the know, Lainya Magana, art curator, writer and principal at San Francisco-based art PR agency, A&O, and Nick Walker, one of the first wave of stencil artists benefiting from the interest in street art and whose work featured in the Bonhams auction in 2008.

Left to right: Lainya Magana, A&O PR; Nick Walker mural 2008

The art world as seen by the public is civilized, orderly and slightly intimidating. On the surface it’s made up of art galleries and auction houses that specialize in art. But, that’s the tip of the iceberg. In the background there’s a complex ecosystem of art consultants, advisors and agents. And they are all paid to create value for their clients, either buying or selling art. “The artist/gallery relationship is about money. The problem is that some artists don’t look at themselves as a business or a brand,” said Magana. “There are good galleries and bad ones…artists need to be very selective as they need to think about longevity of career.”

Nick Walker recognizes the importance of the role a gallery plays in forging his career, “I think it’s important to have a good gallery represent you, especially if they are well positioned and respected. It’s also integral that the gallery keeps an artist’s integrity intact and is not short sighted with an artist’s career. It takes a while to find the right gallery. You could go alone, but selling becomes a distraction and it’s important to place paintings with the right collectors.”

"The Day After" series launch @ Opera gallery, New York 2011

And he should know. Today, Nick Walker is a world-class stencil artist, but he started his career in 1983 graffiti ‘bombing’ the streets of Bristol. “In the early days I used to paint graffiti under the name Ego and I had a t-shirt label called Magic Pudding Avenue from the beginning of the 90s. I would’ve liked to have kept it going, but I wanted to concentrate on painting a lot more than chasing up stores for the money on t-shirt sales.”

The turning point for Walker’s career came in February 2008 when his Los Angeles solo show at Carmichael Gallery sold out. Within days, across the Atlantic in London two of Walker’s works fetched more than five Keith Haring paintings combined at Bonhams’ first ‘urban art’ auction.

Speaking on his experience of the art market Walker said, “When a painting comes to market you’re in the hands of others and it’s just having confidence in the auction house and the knowledge that they are branded and have a good clientele.” He continued, “The nightmare scenario is when a piece goes to a Johnny-come-lately auction house who displays art [in a fashion] not that dissimilar to a car boot sale and doesn’t give a shit about an artist’s career.’ He gave an example, “After the Bonhams result another auction house in the UK jumped on the band wagon and consigned 14 pieces of my work for the same auction. Talk about being made to feel vulnerable. The whole thing’s a double-edged sword.”

A&O’s Magana explains the favorable and unfavorable consequences that Walker refers to, “Sotheby's and Bonhams are major businesses that thrive on the secondary art market. It's inevitable. Collectors will eventually tire of work, or need to make a quick buck, and want to sell their work. And why shouldn't they? And why shouldn't someone else have a chance at purchasing that work on the secondary market? But it's not always so innocent. The secondary art market is also where art is made into a commodity, traded and inflated to a gargantuan level. The market is dictated by those collectors who live at the top tier of wealth and power and unfortunately an artist's value is seen through the lens of commodity and commerce.”

Now that Walker is established and has a following he is focused on his brand and taking some more control of his business affairs. “I was never brand orientated…I hadn’t read up enough on other artists. It’s only over the past two years that I’ve been focusing more on this…It’s more important now to focus on branding because I have established a large group of loyal collectors. I need to keep the machine running and coming up with fresh ideas to produce.”

The Morning After series, Nick Walker

Today, to satisfy demand from his collectors he balances working with galleries and selling his art directly, “…I like to keep the sales of original works through the gallery, but I prefer to have control of my print editions. In the past I’ve released a few of ‘The Morning After’ prints through a gallery where they deal with the production side and admin for a percentage [of the profits], but I’m now releasing the rest of the series myself. I’m building a bigger team to work on projects etc. and dealing with the whole production.” Control is a theme that comes up a few times when talking with Walker. This is because, despite success elevating his career, he feels he’s been held back by others in the past. “My Mona Simpson print sold out at [Banksy-affiliated] Pictures on Walls, but that was all they wanted to print of mine. I offered them ‘The Morning After’ series, but Banksy wasn’t interested in promoting these as he said it was too like something he would do. I disagreed, but Black Rat Press was really keen to work with me, so it felt like the perfect time to move on.”

The Morning After series, Nick Walker

And with the Internet there’s no reason why an artist doesn’t take more control of their work. Magana calls this use of technology ‘Gallery 2.0’. She explains, “The 21st Century artist wants to use Facebook, they want to use Twitter and build their own community…do their own sales… it’s totally possible now.” As ex-gallery director for Upper Playground’s Fifty24SF and NOMA Gallery, Magana has some seasoned advice for artists looking to develop their career through galleries, “Weigh every decision against whether it will provide you with longevity of career. No matter how tempting, don't go for quick sales and don't raise your prices too rapidly. Research the galleries you want to show in and create a business strategy with 6 month, 1 year and 5 year goals.

“And remember, as Andy Warhol said, ‘Making money is art and working is art and big business is the best art’.”

Copyright 2011 by Stephen Pang/UNleashed Magazine.

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