Banksy in Central Park: Case Studies in Marketing 101 for Artists

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Last week, Banksy sold his prints on the streets of New York City for $60 a pop. He sold eight.

A Banksy regularly sells for six figures at auction. So what gives? 

Photo by Tim Fuller
Photo by Tim Fuller

Banksy calls it performance art as part of his residency on the streets of New York. What's the artistic message here? I don't know, take your pick:

-Art is in the eye of the beholder

-Value is arbitrary

-People don't see artistically enough in everyday live

-Meaning comes from context

Whatever. It has the vague flavor of societal criticism and self-deprecation. But what I take from this experiment isn't an artistic message at all--it's a case study in one of the foundations of marketing 101: Placement matters.

It's the metro violinist all over again. As a refresher, in February 2012 a group placed renowned violinist Joshua Bell in a D.C. metro station and posed him as a street performer. Then they waited to see if anyone would notice.

A small group of people paused briefly at various points during the experiment, but most people just kept walking. Like the Banksy experiment, the implied message seems to be that people don't recognize art in everyday life.

Banksy NY art
.Image: © Dan Herrick/

But I ride the D.C. metro everyday, and I take great issue with this implication. The problem isn't just that we can't recognize art in unorthodox places. I hear awesome musicians on the streets frequently. But I don't stop for them.

Why? Well … I'm on the metro because I need to get somewhere. I don't have time to stop, no matter how much I wish I could. D.C.-ers are some of the busiest people I've encountered, so I'm sure I'm not the only one.

The point is, the same is true of the Banksy setup: If I were to see a stand with Banksy prints, I would definitely stop for a moment to enjoy them. But I would not buy one. Two reasons:

1) I would assume they were not authentic.

2) I would not have $60 on me to spend on such a purchase, nor would I be prepared to drop that kind of money on an impulse.

And here, finally, is my point: Are you placing your art in the best places to meet your goals? 

Because here's the big secret that these experiments overlook: Banksy gets hundreds of thousands for his original works not just because it's that good--it's also because he's been able to get placed in the auctions where people are willing to pay that much for art. At that rate, to make a comfortable living, he'd only have to sell one work of art every few years.

So yes, you can can make hundreds of prints of your work and sell them on the street corner every single day, get your work in more hands, and bust your ass every single day doing it.

Or, you can let your art be rare, work your way up, and instead put your time and effort toward getting your art in front of the people most likely to recognize its true value--and spend that much to have it. Feel free to get creative with that last part…the digital world opens up endless opportunity.

You could make a decent living with the street stand model. If Banksy sold eight paintings a day, five days a week, at the $60 price point, he'd earn almost $25,000 a year. You could get by on that. But it would be a lot more work for a lot less reward.

Which situation do you think lends itself to a better creative environment for your future work?

Sure, it's not as simple as that--Banksy spent years on the streets doing his work for free and not seeking any profit at all. But we can all still apply this lesson to how we share our work. Where do you sell your work? Are you selling it at all or giving it away for free (or hiding it in the closet)?

Is it getting in front of people prepared to spend what your art is truly worth? Or are you underselling yourself with your placement?

PS--Reinforcing the importance of placement, two Banksy posers returned to Banksy's spot a few days later and sold 40 Banksy replicas--every single one they had--complete with Certificates in In-authenticity. But now people had heard about Banksy's appearance and were primed to buy at this spot. They called it completing Banksy's statement. I call it opportunistic.


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