The preponderance of public art in metropolises round the globe is bolstering prices in the market. Brian Noone reports
The most expensive private property development in American history is finally taking shape on Midtown Manhattan’s western edge, the $25 billion Hudson Yards. Spread across an 11.3ha site – about 3% the size of Central Park – it will include 4,000 residences, office space for the likes of Time Warner and BlackRock, a sprawling shopping mall, a Spanish food market by ex-el Bulli chefs and an arts centre, making the long-unloved stretch between 30th and 34th Streets the city’s most talked-about new neighbourhood, all of it latticed by the already-popular elevated park that is the High Line.
At the development’s heart is a staircase-to-the-sky clad in copper and designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a 46m-tall centrepiece costing the developers a cool $150 million. In CO2-rich Manhattan, a small forest would have been the cheaper, sensible option, but art is increasingly our most valuable public good, a role it flaunts from Carsten Höller’s new slide at Miami’s Aventura Mall to the contemplative Constellation by Ralph Helmick on the Abu Dhabi Corniche and the constantly changing exhibitions that bring patrons to Adrian Cheng’s flourishing K11 art malls, currently in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
As an evolution of statement architecture, public art makes financial sense – individual pieces of art, no matter how large, are almost always cheaper than buildings – but it’s also a reflection of the increasing sway art has as a global cultural force. And this is great news for both artists and collectors alike, who are reaping the benefits of this symbiosis like never before.
Take the red-hot Nigerian-American painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose murals temporarily adorn both Brixton station in the London Underground and the exterior walls of Los Angeles’s MOCA. In 2016, Crosby’s dealer, Victoria Miro, made the widely publicised decision to sell the young artist’s works only to museums and institutions, prizing public exposure over establishing a loyal private clientele. The murals are part of the same strategy – and it appears to be paying off: three recent works to reach auction, from March 2017 to last May, soared more than four times their high estimates to hammer prices above $3 million each.
Promoting the selling prices of individual artists is not the purpose of public art programmes such as Art on the Underground, which commissioned Crosby, but it seems an inevitable consequence – and perhaps no bad thing. Eleanor Pinfield, the head of the London initiative, speaks about the series of temporary installations “bringing a broad range of female artists’ voices to London”. Broadening their appeal in the market is simply another facet of this exposure.
There are occasions, however, when such prominence can be unwelcome: American artist Jeff Koons donated a 10m-high sculpture, Bouquet of Tulips, to the city of Paris following the terrorist attacks of 2014 and 2015. Initially promised a conspicuous location, in sight of the Eiffel Tower, the Parisian public’s pushback was so strong that it took years to find an appropriate site, in the gardens outside the Petit Palais not far from the American embassy.
Christo and the late Jean-Claude were pioneers of temporary urban installations, and their latest outsized work, Mastaba, a monumental stack of 7,506 oil barrels in the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park, drew widespread acclaim. Their signal insight – and one increasingly appreciated by urban planners everywhere – is the raw power of a transitory public spectacle. It invigorates the shared space, giving us something to think about if we’re alone or talk about if we’re together. And because it is time-limited, we rarely get agitated by its domineering presence if we don’t like it.
The appeal of temporary sculptures was cemented in 1977 by Skulptur Projekte Münster, still the world’s most prominent changing sculpture display, though it occurs only once each decade (next show: 2027). More accessible is Frieze Sculpture in Regent’s Park, which displays dozens of works dotted around the London green space in the weeks before its namesake fair each year. And still more accessible is the extraordinary array of temporary works that are shown globally each year, whether part of a programme or individually, be it the star-studded Harbour Arts Sculpture Park that made headlines during its seven-week appearance in Hong Kong this spring or Tauba Auerbach’s Flow Separation, an eye-popping dazzle ship, inspired by those of WWI, which is patrolling the New York harbour until 12 May.
The other pioneers of temporary urban art worked in two dimensions rather than three, and their pieces were short-lived primarily for legal reasons: graffiti artists in 1960s New York found a voice in vandalism, and, at first, the subject matter was almost exclusively political. Over the decades, the medium expanded its guerrilla tactics globally and with extraordinary range, from artfully tagging one’s own name to the visual poetry of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s SAMO and the wry slogans of Jenny Holzer (which now primarily appear – legally – in digital projections).
The art establishment, as well as global metropolitan leaders, have now endorsed the medium, whether willingly or reluctantly, so that every self-respecting city now has a street art tour, be it Berlin or Las Vegas, not to mention the notoriously law-abiding Singapore (where, as in many other capitals, permission to paint has become part of the process – in 2015, for instance, two Germans were sentenced to nine months in prison and three strokes of the cane for defacing a Singapore train).
Increasingly even when graffiti is not officially sanctioned it’s often hard to see much subversion: outside a Basquiat exhibition in London in 2017, the world’s best-known graffiti artist, Banksy, painted a satirical tribute aimed at London’s graffiti-erasing police. It now sits behind protective glass and is discussed not as vandalism but as a “mural”.
Banksy again made headlines this year with a work of art, based on an earlier mural, which partially self-destructed just after it was sold at Sotheby’s. Again, far from subverting the milieu in which it found itself, the work became an utterly unique art object, almost certainly worth more than the buyer paid. And Banksy is no stranger to art world institutions: exhibitions of his work circle global museums – this autumn saw them in Toronto, Berlin, London and Moscow – so that the question is no longer whether street art will be accepted by the mainstream, but rather, just how much it will be worth.
The answer is, most likely, more than it is now. Museum exposure has always boosted the prices of artists; now that our cities themselves are becoming outdoor art museums, it would be a surprise if the prices of all urban art – sculptures, installations, murals, graffiti – didn’t reflect it.
NetJets Magazine, 2018