Walking into the Banksy exhibition at the new Red Eight Gallery at The Royal Exchange, the first artwork you’ll see is Morons, a depiction of an auction room upon which Banksy has scrawled: “I can’t believe you morons buy this shit.”
Let’s just get this out of the way first: it’s blazingly ironic to host a Banksy exhibition here in the heart of the capital’s financial district, feet from the Bank of England’s gold vaults, given the artist has spent his career critiquing capitalism.
“It’s almost as if Banksy is already dead”Curator Julian Usher on the insane valuations of Banksy originals and prints
But that’s all part of the fun. There wealth present at the gallery is staggering. There’s an estimated five million pounds worth of the good stuff under lock and key at the new gallery, open from 25 August to 15 September, and highlights include an original worth £4.3m, as well as lithographs and limited edition prints produced by Banksy, which are expected to reach anything from £1,000 to £200,000 if bids are made by visitors.
Next to Morons is a print of the gentler Girl with Balloon, one of Banksy’s most stand-out political pieces, expected to reach somewhere between £20,000 and £200,000. “People in the area have money to buy Banksys and Harland Millers and Damien Hirsts but they may not wish to go to Mayfair,” says Sean North, curator. “We want to set up right on their doorstep.”
With the art on the walls organised by price point, the launch gives the distinct impression that money takes precedence over meaning, with the cheapest pieces by the door and the priciest hidden away in the safe echelons of the upstairs gallery, although QR codes tell the stories of the original creative visions, for those interested.
The cost of Banksys has skyrocketed over the past fifteen years. Even souvenirs sold for a few pounds at his Dismaland theme park from 2015 are now worth thousands. Seven years ago, prints sold in the gift shop at the park went for £10. These days, they have reached £15,000 at auction, and items from the artist’s GDP Shop that sold for £500 in 2019 are now reaching over £160,000.
“It’s almost as if Banksy is already dead,” says co-curator Julian Usher. “He’s not promoting work on a month to month basis.”
Ascend the stairs in the gallery past another work, Welcome Mat, and the main attraction is Laugh Now, the only original Banksy on show, which is expected to fetch over £4m if sold. It’s a stencil on metal of a gorilla wearing an apron reading: “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.”
On the left upstairs there’s a print of the famous Flower Thrower and opposite that, a Banksquiat print referencing the pioneering 1980s New York street artist Basquait, depicting a fairground carousel with crown shapes instead of seats.
North notes that Banksy has “transitioned from a graffiti artist in the street to a gallery artist collected by investment bankers, doctors and lawyers,” but the artist still makes time for the fun stuff. Banksy made headlines during the pandemic when he – it’s widely accepted it’s a he – made a piece on canvas of a boy playing with an NHS nurse doll, which appeared in the foyer of Southampton Hospital with a thank you note to staff.
It raised more than £16m for an NHS charity after being sold at auction. The artist also gave Christopher Walken permission to paint over one of his Bristolian street pieces while filming BBC drama The Outlaws in 2021.
There is so much interest in Banksy that a thousand people have signed up to the gallery launch when only 500 can realistically fit in, says North, but one unlikely attendee is the artist himself. The elusive creative remains officially unknown, though Red Eight Gallery suspects his Pest Control “handling service” will be in touch to collect their resale rights from every Banksy sold by a third party.
I can’t help but ask the most obvious, and most pressing, question: would North and his co-curators Julian Usher and Bradley George know if the mystery artist slipped in to mingle with the crowd? “I’ve got it on good authority who he is,” North teases, hinting at the fact that Banksy’s identity is the worst kept secret in the art world. “But I don’t think it will ever be revealed. It could be anyone. That’s part of the reason he’s been so successful.”
Banking on Banksy is at the Red Eight Gallery at The Royal Exchange, Bank, 25 August until 15 September . Entry is free