THE BLOG
21/10/2013 13:37 BST | Updated 19/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Does the Commercialisation of Street Art Undermine the Work?

Banksy's recent activity in New York has generated mountains of coverage, in print and online. But what does the greater coverage of urban artists mean for the street art market?

Certainly the internet has made street art more accessible, more widely viewed and more popular - would Banksy be as popular without the internet? But many argue that this same accessibility has encouraged the over commercialization of street art. Now we see radical urban artists sometimes enjoying collaborative deals with stalwarts of the traditional business establishment - benefiting both parties.

People love street art for it's creativity, it's wit, it's individuality and it's stance outside the norm - and in particular it's position outside the mainstream art market. But as it grows in popularity, does the street art community face the dichotomy of increased popularity bringing increased commercialization, and thereby robbing the medium of the very "outsider" stance with which it is identified.

Let me be transparent here. My business is dealing with street art, direct with the artists, but I also work with the secondary market, meaning that I sell works of art from private owners  at auction. I am at turns, both greeted with open arms, and shunned from the hardcore street community. I am passionate about the craft, and from a background in traditional auction houses, wanted to focus purely on this sector of the art world which is at once both thrilling and subversive.

I'm also fascinated by how street art has changed the way the traditional art market works. Use of the internet by street artists has enabled them to take their work directly to their audience  - but now auction houses also address the online market directly, and crucially, artists (and Damien Hirst was the first to do this), are creating works specifically for auction. Entire shows are built around a subsequent sale. (And now auction houses are even further in on the game, with branded galleries being opened by both Christies and Sotheby's recently. But that's another article...)

But the street art community is special. The very same "outsider" stance means that the emerging artists can be championed within the community, achieve online exposure and crucially, an online marketplace direct to the buyer.

The collections I have put together always include the latest emerging artists together with the stalwarts of the movement eg Banksy, Shepard Fairey, KAWS who in turn now rank alongside the work of seminal graffiti artists such as Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat.  It is important to me to show the progression of this movement and in an upcoming sale in Paris all of the above artists are represented together with the emerging talent.

I had discussion recently with a friend who has always been a keen follower of the art market and a significant urban art collector. We discussed how the Internet has played such a huge role in the exposure of urban art, and subsequent success of street art's realization into the art market as the latest movement.  He rightly pointed out that while a fundamental tool in its success, the role of economics has played an equal part in the urban art boom.

His point? Forget $12 million dollar sharks dealt with by the big players, what's interesting is how the freely available money in the mid 2000's allowed a lot of people to purchase street art - first time buyers which thereby, almost over night, broadened the profile of the art buyer.

For example, the ease of getting mortgages on houses meant many street art enthusiasts who had never bought before got caught by the craze and took out loans or remortgaged their houses to buy a Banksy or the latest work. This was particularly true in 2007 and 2008 when we saw a huge amount of first time art buyers where money was no object.

To my mind, the street art market has changed a lot over the last twenty years. While some artists have retained their value, and some most definitely haven't, what's true is that we have seen a whole new movement of art, whose commercialization is unavoidable due to its ever growing popularity.  

It is clear that when commercialization brings greater exposure, ensuring the messages behind the art (when there often are), are received by an even greater audience, then I believe that's a good thing. Far from undermining it, commercialization supports the establishment and longevity of urban art as a significant movement.

* Urban Contemporary sale, 25th October, Digard Auctions, Hotel Drouot, Paris.

www.mmcontemporaryarts.com