March 5, 2013

The Perils of Owning Public Art

A few years ago, a mural by British guerrilla artist Banksy popped up in the ruins of the Packard plant near Detroit:
The mural is a 7-by-8-foot stencil painting on a cinder-block wall that pictures a forlorn boy with a can of red paint next to the words ‘I remember when all this was trees.’
Recognizing the value, a local art gallery swooped in and relocated the ruined wall and the mural. The ownership status of the plant was unclear, so presumably they thought it was fair game. The value of a free-range Banksy, as it happened, drew the actual owner of the property out of the woodwork to claim it, as well. As a result, IIRC, he wound up getting socked with a huge unpaid property tax bill. Talk about karma.

Questions of ownership and where works like that wind up are in the news again, thanks to Banksy once again, this time in the UK. The neighborhood in question, Haringey, was one the site of some of the most intense London austerity riots in 2011:
The work — called ‘Slave Labour’ and depicting a downtrodden, barefoot boy making Union Jacks on a sewing machine — had become a point of pride in Haringey . . .. Stenciled onto the wall of the everything-costs-a-pound Poundland store on Whymark Avenue, it drew visitors from across London and abroad; so many people asked for directions that the local subway station erected a special ‘This way to our Banksy’ sign.
As with the Packard mural, it was not long for its native habitat:
’It had been ripped out with no explanation, along with quite a substantial chunk of the wall,’ said Alan Strickland, a member of the local council, describing the bizarre scene that greeted passers-by the other weekend. ‘All that was left was this hole.’
The mystery deepened when the mural reappeared at an auction in Miami. When a stink was raised it was quickly withdrawn, but not before being valued at more than half-a-million dollars. Now the question is what to do with it next.

To be sure, from a legal standpoint, there is no doubt that Poundland, or rather the company that owns the building that they lease, owns the mural. It was put up on their wall, after all, without permission. They own it just like they own a gang sign thrown up in spray paint. Nevertheless, it’s being coy about just what its intentions might be:
‘If it wasn’t them, then somebody else did it, but my clients have not reported any theft to the police,’ said Matthew Dillon, a lawyer for the company.

He acknowledged in an earlier interview that those clients are now in a fix. ‘If they deny removing the mural they will become embroiled in an international criminal investigation,’ he told The Financial Times, ‘and if they admit to consenting to it, then they will become the target of abuse.’ He added, ‘The advice to my client has been to say nothing.’
Generally, if an attorney advises his client to say nothing, he doesn’t say anything, either (aside from “no comment”). The “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” defense is saying something, although it’s unclear what.

Assuming that the company took the mural out and decided to sell it off – after all, it’s in business to make money – is there anything wrong with it? Anything that should subject it to abuse? Not really.

Legally, there’s no question – it’s their wall, do with it what they will. I also have a hard time locating any ethical principle that would require the company to maintain an impromptu piece of art that it neither commissioned nor consented to being put up on its property. Art is subjective and whether you think Banksy (or any particular work of his) is brilliant or not is irrelevant to the question of whether a private entity can be forced to display it.

Would it have been cool for the company to embrace the value of having a piece of unexpected art pop up in their neighborhood and leave it in place? Sure. Ultimately, the company’s greatest sin wasn’t removing the mural, but trying to profit from it (if, in fact, it did). It’s one thing to remove art you don’t like from public view. It’s another to get rid of it in order to make a quick buck. It may be good business sense to take advantage of a windfall, but it’s kind of a dick move.

Note: I tried to find good, public domain or creative commons images of the two murals in this piece, but failed. For a good picture of the Detroit mural, see here. For a good picture of the Haringey mural, see here.

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