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Street Art and Economics

The economics behind street art: commercialisation and its consequences.

In my former article we touched upon the topic of the growing popularity of street art and the ongoing development of the movement. Now almost every city has a gallery or project focusing on street art. Prosecuted in different formats, the result of street art is the same in every city: it is adding content the streets and the people’s lives. Today I shall further explore the (economic) consequences of such the development of the movement, because new opportunities have also brought new challenges. Once again there are new questions to which there are no decisive answers.

What is a fair compensation for street artist contributing to projects or festivals?

Who benefits from the popularity of street art and how?

First of all, the market involvement of street art has its positive outcomes: it is great that artist begin to be paid and can earn some money for contributing to the city. Works begin to be documented via video and photos, the artist can travel and accumulate individual following. Even though, the money earned is usually still very little.

When it comes to the illegal art on the streets, independent of art style, and excluded from the official ‘public art commission’, the struggling point is the absence of agreements concerning ownership.

The difficulty starts with the fact that originally many of the art was not meant to sell, the work was assumed and accepted to belong to the public. This practically it means that ‘anyone can use it’ and there is little legal remedy for the artist to claim his/her rights when the work is turned into a consumer good. In addition, the artist cannot make a legal claim without revealing his/her identity. But to reveal his/her anonymous status would mean to be prosecuted for making illegal pieces under his/her former hiding name.

So in order to make some money, many of the street artists participate in festivals, however it is clear that the artist cannot make a living out of this. The average deal so far includes “flights, accommodation, basic food allowance, materials and ± a 500 euro payment per wall, if you are lucky”. However, in many instances the artists are not paid for the work but promised publicity through the festival’s channel.

There are exception, of course, but they are reserved for ‘really big names’ when the artist can ask for a couple of thousand euros, but again these are rare. In general, the bigger the honorarium for a mural the larger is the client’s influence on the final outcome. Some artist struggle with the ethical problem of being independent and staying true to his/her own ideas versus interacting with the market economy. When painting on legal or commissioned bases, it happens quite regularly that the artist is not allowed to freely choose what he/she wants to paint. Sketches are turned down for social or political reasons. The artist has to negotiate and compromise, sometimes with multiple parties - the project’s curator, the curator’s client and the residents.

For some street artist who come from a graffiti background, this already means they have to abandon their ideals - ethics of the movement. Where graffiti used to go against the idea of private property and against business models that have monopoly over advertising and the designing of the public space, it means street art crosses this boundary when working for companies and governmental projects. "We work for the system, let’s face it," street artist Da Cruz from Paris admits. So what does it mean for the art and artist, when the work is turned into a new commodity, followed by consumer goods?

Within the market-orientated world, it means the artist who knows how to sell himself is the most successful. This is not entirely new. Andy Warhol worked as a commercial artist before he crossed to fine art. Obey turned his art into a successful trademark, manufacturing clothes and consumer goods. In order to make money, the artists have different pursuits next to their artistic work. That includes for example entrepreneurship, networking, building and maintaining your own website; creating business models. Above that, not only the artwork, but also the catchy personality of the artist seems important. The successful marketing of Banksy is partly because of the mystery around his personality, if you ask me. Another good money making example is David Choe, who originated in street art, has a crazy personality and a nose for business opportunities. According to online magazine ‘The Richest’ David Choe has now an estimated worth of 150million. But the side activities for business development that made these artists successful, is not the path that all artists like to choose or are suitable for.

Now let’s move away from the individual artist and look at it from a broader perspective. Who benefits from ‘street art’ in the city and how?

The city benefits from street art from a marketing point of view, since street art creates content within the city, giving it a distinctive identity. Like the street art village in Indonesia and the ‘Street Art City’ in France I mentioned in the last article, street art is used by governments and cities to attract more tourists. The city earns from it, as money is spent on local economy. But in what extent does this money go back to the makers? A few times pictures from the collection of Street Art Museum Amsterdam have been used in city magazine, promoting the city or neighbourhood. Neither the artist nor the museum got compensation for it. So can we say that the makers of public paintings are taken for granted once the work is there?

When looking at the impact on residents, you’ll see that in both past and present, artists have extensively used poor neighbourhoods as a space of expression. Abandoned sites or buildings often serve as creative breeding grounds for graffiti and street art. In a process of gentrification these ‘freewheeling artistic sites’ are likely to disappear in order to make place for new hotels or parking spots (Five Points NYC or Spui Amsterdam). On the other hand, some critics suggest that street art can instigate the gentrification process. The creative and vibrant atmosphere of artists working in a neighborhood often attracts younger, richer people. Then the question for the galleries and artists is: how to deal with such a large scale process?

Eventually through all these new challenges, there are a couple examples of projects and artists that found an interesting balance between street and commerce. The Global Street Art initiative in London is one of them. It focusses on giving graffiti and street art a place within the city, supporting artists from all over the world. Next to it, they have a separate commercial side, working with brands to build events, advertising and other projects. Running both a non-profit and a commercial agency, they are able to grow and sustain the initiative.

Another example is Nuart festival, one of the leading celebrations of street art. Their focus is to work with new forms of art exhibition that are neither institutionalised nor commercial. They organise public events; workshops, tours or movie nights, in order to raise awareness and some money for the artists. It is a not for profit organisation run by “a small group of idealistic volunteers, vandals and bored arts professionals”, as they themselves stated.

At Street Art Museum Amsterdam we are working to find solutions as well. By specialising in research and education we try to stimulate social and political impact of contemporary visual arts in subordinated neighbourhoods. Our acquisition policy insures that artists earn money for doing their works, however, without commercialising it - as it doesn’t seem right to push street art into the directions of commerce or elite art only.

What do you think is a happy medium?

Here are a couple links for further investigation on this topic from your side:

Last but not least, do you have any additions or thoughts on this matter, as well as about the former two articles on the definition and development of the street art movement?

We would like to hear your contemplations and comments!

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