Mall in Central Israel Abusing Banksy's Art to Promote the Capitalist Culture He Despises

Placemaking is seemingly a win-win proposition: Artists get support and a platform for displaying their work, the public gets new and refreshing artistic content and owners see property values rise. But over the long term, it could look different.

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"Girl With a Balloon" by Banksy.
"Girl With a Balloon" by Banksy.Credit: Courtesy of The Art of Banksy
Melanie Stern
Melanie Stern
Melanie Stern
Melanie Stern

In recent years neglected neighborhoods have been getting face-lifts through a process called “placemaking”: Communities mobilize to create local initiatives and improve their public spaces. Activities include holding cultural events, opening small businesses, renovating public parks, encouraging graffiti art and more.

This is how the Onya Collective, made up of artists, designers and architects, worked to improve the negative image of Tel Aviv’s new central bus station by positioning ecological art displays there in 2014. Another example is Jerusalem’s New Spirit organization, which was founded in 2003 and harnessed hundreds of students and artists to renovate commercial strips and community parks throughout the city. These are generally low-budget projects driven by residents themselves, but now some real estate developers are starting to perceive the phenomenon’s commercial potential.

Placemaking is seemingly a win-win proposition: Artists get support and a platform for displaying their work, the public gets new and refreshing artistic content and owners see property values rise. But over the long term, it could look different.

Artist Rei Dishon, a leader of iArtists, a professional community of independent artists, told Haaretz that “The phenomenon is in itself positive – artists are seeking a place and need a place. The question is, who is motivating the processes? Are we talking about public agencies, local authorities, the artists themselves or commercial bodies?”

That last factor cited by Dishon is the most problematic. In general, real estate developers don’t have an arts background, and frequently one sees the shallow and populist appropriation of cultural activities for consumer purposes. Israeli graffiti artist Klone Yourself talks of one instance: “At the Fresh Paint fair in 2014 they held a small, one-day event at [the luxury] Meier Tower on Rothschild [Boulevard] called Special Edition, at which graduates of the fair’s artist incubators displayed their works. I came to help a friend, and I remember that it really felt as if the art was part of the décor, and instead of selling artwork they were selling apartments. It was right in your face.”

Across the ocean one can point to the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami as a successful example of placemaking. Over the past decade the neighborhood has gone from being an area of abandoned commercial warehouses to a trendy arts district – but its original residents got pushed out in favor of luxury homes. “This is an amazing project by a group of young people who made the neighborhood bloom,” wrote Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev on her Facebook page in January, after she toured the area, adding that the initiative was "a model that we will examine to import into neighborhoods in Israeli cities." But the massive wall murals, in front of which Regev was photographed, were not the initiative of the artists. They were planned by real estate developers.

In many cases successful placemaking processes ended with the sale of local properties to real estate tycoons, who then erected luxury projects at the expense of the alternative cultural scene. Build, a company that works with content management and placemaking, is responsible for the Florentin Quarter compound in the eponymous south Tel Aviv neighborhood, which was built on the ruins of the graffiti-covered carpentry shops that had been there for years. It has become one of the most prominent symbols of gentrification in the area. On the other hand, similar projects are often spurred by the authorities. The Tourism Ministry and the Haifa municipality, for instance, launched a project two years ago to develop Jaffa and Natanzon streets in the lower city with the aim of turning them into a tourism and commercial strip that would include leisure and cultural sites.

The Arena Mall at the Herzliya Marina may be far from being a crumbling, abandoned property, but for several years it had been suffering from a drop in traffic. At the end of 2015 it was only 80 percent occupied and it was valued at 320 million shekels, a drop of 95 million shekels compared to the previous year. In June 2016, the Reality Fund bought the mall, intending to convert part of the structure into offices, clinics, event halls or hotel rooms. How does the fund plan to raise the value of the property? Among other things, by turning it into a lively arts center with the help of placemaking, of course.

During the Passover holiday, the mall will host what could be called the Banksy Festival. Alongside an exhibition entitled “The Art of Banksy,” showing a number of his works that were assembled from collections all over the world, there will also be a display of art “products” made either by the noted graffiti artist or inspired by him. Banksy, who refuses to reveal his identity, is known for his subversive, anti-establishment messages, which often mete out scathing criticism of capitalism and consumer culture. He recently opened The Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem in an effort to forge a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

Banksy's extensive body of work has made him an almost official synonym for street art and a name to be dropped by anyone professing to understand it. But the Arena project isn’t trying to create a context for the artist, his work, is ideology or his views; it is riding the wave of his popularity as a brand. Banksy himself has nothing to do with the “Art of Banksy” exhibition, which is being curated by his former agent, Steve Lazarides. Arena’s owners hope that the artist’s name will draw visitors to the faltering mall, where they will pay entry fees of 59 shekels to 89 shekels.

Thus, an artist of Banksy’s caliber becomes a tool in the hands of developers. This exhibition subverts his essence as an artist while reproducing the capitalist mechanism he has frequently criticized.

Reality Fund and Build staged a competition for artists whose works are inspired by Banksy and "are connected to the world of street art and/or graffiti." Within the next few days, the winners will be chosen by a team of judges, which includes representatives of the two companies – whose names Build refused to disclose.

MIrit Becher, the Arena compound’s CEO, said in a statement that the Banksy exhibition “is aimed at creating content of added value to the compound and its visitors. The call we issued to artists to come display their works for free in the compound during the exhibition gives young artists an excellent opportunity to be exposed to the large audience that will visit the compound during the exhibition, and I welcome the opportunity to give these artists a platform.”

“I appreciate Banksy’s work very much,” says Dishon. “The point is that sometimes people don’t understand the context. People going to see Banksy’s work at the mall in Herzliya may not get that it’s the same Banksy that opened a hotel in Bethlehem.”

Art critic Yonatan Amir raises the question of whether “context is an inseparable part of a work to the extent that displaying it separately damages it substantively.” With regard to Banksy, he doubts "that an exhibition in a nouveau riche mall in a suburban city will harm an artist of this caliber.” He adds, however, “We’re talking about an artist who has nurtured such an aura of mystery that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out one day that even exhibitions that were ostensibly mounted against his will were actually his initiatives.”



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