News Column

Banksy mural may return to Packard Plant

August 20, 2014

By Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press



Aug. 20--Detroit's most famous piece of graffiti art might be headed back to where the fuss all started -- the Packard Plant.

Fernando Palazuelo, the new owner of the plant, told the Free Press that he has a meeting scheduled at 2 p.m. today with leaders of the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios to discuss the return of the now world-famous mural by the anonymous British artist known as Banksy.

The Detroit-based gallery excavated the 8-foot-tall, 1,500-pound piece of art from the crumbling Packard Plant in May 2010, setting off a firestorm of criticism and debate about the nature of graffiti art. By now the story has had more twists and turns than a Russian novel, and the idea that the mural might in fact complete a round-trip journey to the site of its birth is an irony that nobody could have predicted.

"I think the Banksy graffiti should be in the Packard Plant, and I have a positive feeling of our negotiations with the 555 Gallery," Palazuelo said.

It was unclear Tuesday whether Palazuelo was negotiating to buy the Banksy, whose ultimate monetary value in the marketplace remains a subject of elusive conjecture, or whether some other kind of arrangement was being discussed.

"We don't know what they're proposing, so this is just the beginning," said Eric Steinhaus, vice chairman of the gallery's board. "We're anxious to hear what he has in mind."

Palazuelo did not elaborate on the specifics of the deal, but he did say that he believes it is important to Detroit that the Banksy remain in the city rather than migrating elsewhere. Created on a cinder-block wall, the mural is a stencil painting of a forlorn boy with a can of red paint next to the words "I remember when all this was trees."

"I think the history of the Packard Plant is not only the history of the first half of the century -- 1903 to 1956 -- but it's also the history from 1956 to today," Palazuelo said. "The graffiti artists have been playing a big role, and Banksy is the start."

-- Special report: The Packard Plant: Why it has to go

-- The Packard Plant: Then and now -- interactive comparison photos

Banksy, who works all over the world in secrecy, is known as an artist, celebrity and provocateur. The market for his murals is erratic, partly because he refuses to authenticate works removed from their original context.

Works that appear on Banksy's website -- as the Packard mural did when it was created -- are considered authentic by experts. A work comparable to the Packard mural sold last year at auction in Los Angeles for $209,000, but the record price for a Banksy mural at auction is $1.1 million. Other murals, however, have failed to find buyers.

The Banksy in Detroit has been the center of controversy from the moment artists from the 555 Gallery, a grassroots all-volunteer organization, removed it from the ruins of the Packard Plant. They said they were merely saving the work from imminent destruction and would put it on public display. They also said they had no interest in selling it.

Critics said that gallery had no right to take it -- and that the meaning of the graffiti art is indivisible from its location, so to move it is to kill it.

In the wake of the publicity, a company aligned with the then-owner of the Packard Plant sued the gallery for its return. Eventually, 555 paid $2,500 for clear title and the work went on display at the gallery, a renovated old police precinct in southwest Detroit.

The controversy erupted anew earlier this year when the gallery revealed that it planned to sell the Banksy to raise money for its primary mission of providing exhibition space and studios for artists and educational programs. Critics charged the gallery with hypocrisy.

Steinhaus said that the gallery stands by its decision to sell the work and that it has fielded private offers to buy the piece, as well as offers from commercial galleries interested in selling it on behalf of 555 on consignment. However, Steinhaus said that no offers have come in with terms that the gallery considered appropriate.

Even if the Banksy returns to its original home, the gallery is still likely to face some ire if it ends up profiting from a sale. And the debate over the work is also unlikely to die.

On the one hand, the rich history of the Banksy is now so ingrained in conversation about its residence and its relationship to Detroit that its meaning has shifted from the artist's original intent.

On the other hand, the question remains: Can a piece of graffiti art ever really go home again?

Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or mstryker@freepress.com. Staff writer JC Reindl contributed to this report.

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(c)2014 the Detroit Free Press

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Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)


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