Artists at 555 Gallery and Studios set off a firestorm when they removed a large mural by world-renowned street artist Banksy from the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit in May 2010.
They reasoned that the 7-foot-by-8-foot piece would be destroyed at the crumbling plant, so why not preserve it and feature it at their Detroit gallery for all to see?
Critics fired back that street art should live and die at its original location.
Now the folks at the nonprofit gallery, which survives on a slim budget of $70,000, want to sell the valuable 1,500-pound cinder-block wall to finance new education programs, provide more studio space and ultimately invest more in budding local and visiting artists, volunteers said publicly for the first time in an interview with Motor City Muckraker.
“The Banksy isn’t our identity,” volunteer executive director and co-founder Carl W. Goines told us. “Our focus has always been on giving artists and others an opportunity to create and grow. We can better serve the community that way.”
The mural, which depicts a boy with a can of red paint and the words, “I remember when all this was trees,” now sits against a wall at the corner of the gallery, partially concealed by tables.
After a legal battle with the owner of the Packard Plant, the gallery reached a $2,500 agreement to legally take ownership of the mural.
The value of street art has been soaring in recent years. Last month, a Banksy mural taken from the side of a pub in England was sold for $575,000. In December, a similar stencil sold for $209,000.
555 volunteers said they don’t plan to auction off the piece and would rather find a direct buyer.
The artists and board members know the decision will roil some in the street art community. And to many, there was an implicit understanding that the piece would remain local and open to the public.
But at 555, which operates solely with volunteers inside a largely unused former police precinct on West Vernor, the bills must be paid. Without secure funding, 555 has bounced from cramped homes to warehouses to the Third Police Precinct, where about 14,000 square feet is unused and in need of work.
The studio has more than 30 resident artists, musicians, writers, nonprofit arts administrators and creative entrepreneurs. All of them chip in with repairs and renovations.
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“We have people who really support each other, and they spend their spare time and energy here,” Goines said. “There’s always something going on here. There’s so much motivation and dedication.”
But to make it to the next step, the gallery needs money, volunteers said.
“Cash is not the goal” in selling the Banksy, Erik Garant, operations director at 555, said. “It’s all about sustainability.”
To inquire about the Banksy mural, call 888-495- ARTS or email info@555arts.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.
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