An Events Corporation That Produces Concerts for Jay-Z and Madonna Put on a Banksy Show in Miami. What Could Go Wrong?
Live Nation teamed up with Banksy's former dealer Steve Lazarides to create a traveling, for-profit Banksy exhibition.
When you enter “The Art of Banksy” exhibition in Miami, the first thing you see is not a work of art. It’s a backdrop. You are invited to stand in front of this mural-size poster, which presents one of Banksy’s frequent subjects, a monkey, preparing to blow up a stick of dynamite. You are offered a red balloon in the shape of a heart to hold in front of this backdrop. And you are invited to have your picture taken.
While many museums are sheepishly working to incorporate Instagram photo ops in their exhibitions, “The Art of Banksy” has unabashedly embraced this and other populist trends that blur the line between art and entertainment. There’s hip-hop music droning in the background. There’s a bar and a screen-printing station. There’s theatrical lighting and videos stationed throughout the gallery.
So far, this approach has proved popular—and profitable. The Banksy show, which has traveled to Tel Aviv and Toronto, has sold considerably more than 100,000 tickets during its tour. To Steve Lazarides, the artist’s estranged dealer and curator of the exhibition, this represents the future of art.
“It is mixing music, a downtown location, warehouse space where people can have a drink after,” he told artnet News. “It’s making it more of an event rather than wandering around with a glass of Chardonnay.”
Lazarides isn’t the only one who sees an opportunity. He was approached to organize the show by Live Nation, the concert and events promoter with billions of dollars in revenue and multimillion-dollar deals with Madonna, Shakira, and Jay-Z. “They’ve crunched the numbers, they must believe that this can work,” Lazarides says.
Indeed. Tickets to “The Art of Banksy” cost a minimum of $35 a pop. (You can buy them on Ticketmaster, a subsidiary of Live Nation.) Lazarides estimates that the show cost around $1 million to produce. So in order to break even, the company needs to sell at least 28,571 tickets. It’s already overshot that total many times over.
But is the appetite for Banksy, and for this kind of experience, truly unlimited? In Miami on Tuesday evening, less than a week into the show’s run, the warehouse in the city’s Little Haiti neighborhood was nearly empty. The ratio of security guards to visitors was more than one-to-one. During an hour-long visit, I counted just 15 people who weren’t hired to be there.
It felt very far from the rock n’ roll, freewheeling atmosphere Lazarides had promised. Most of the exhibition was devoted to screen prints by Banksy, which looked limp and poster-like on the big warehouse walls. Venturing to a Banksy exhibition on the eve of Art Basel Miami Beach, I expected to feel cramped, overwhelmed, and overstimulated. I didn’t expect to feel bored and a little lonely.
The works in the show, Lazarides has taken pains to note, were not taken from the street, but borrowed from private collectors. “I think it’s better for the show to be out there than the works languishing somewhere never to be seen,” he says.
(It should be noted that Miami is hosting another exhibition of work by Banksy this week. “Saving Banksy Miami,” which opens on Thursday, presents Banksy’s Haight Street Rat, which was preserved from a San Francisco building that was due to be destroyed, alongside the work of other street artists. It is free to the public.)
Banksy has made it clear he has nothing to do with the Live Nation project—and isn’t happy about it. A spokesperson for Banksy’s company Pest Control has called it “an unauthorized traveling show organized by unscrupulous profiteers.”
It’s not surprising that the artist isn’t a fan of the Live Nation show, even beyond the admission fee. The presentation feels as if someone took the administrative part of one’s job—the part that they don’t like, but know is necessary—and then presented it to the world as the majority of one’s practice. For most people, that involves spreadsheets and databases, but for Banksy, it involves screen prints and canvases that can easily be bought and sold.
Asked how collectors were convinced to loan their work to a for-profit exhibition, Lazarides notes that he is “pretty sure” Live Nation is offering them a fee, an unorthodox move for more traditional shows. (A spokesperson for Live Nation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
On Tuesday night, the few visitors I did see in the cavernous galleries—mostly young local couples on dates—were pleased with the offerings. Most found out about the show online, particularly from Instagram ads. They liked seeing images that they recognized, and getting a hint of what Banksy’s work looked like in the wild through large-format photographs on the walls. Who am I to dismiss something that brings other people genuine joy, I thought?
So instead, I walked around this nearly empty, dimly lit warehouse rented out by a company with nearly 10,000 employees, and I thought about Lazarides’s parting words: “You could take this show to every capital city in the world and it could work anywhere. Cab drivers in Karachi know who Banksy is. It could just keep running.”
“The Art of Banksy” is on view through February 28, 2019, at Magic City Studios, 6301 NE Fourth Ave., Miami. “Saving Banksy Miami” is on view from December 6–9 at the Superchief Gallery, 3100 NW Seventh Ave., Miami.
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