What value street art?

One of the pleasures of urban living is the opportunity to be surprised by artwork that may appear, literally overnight, on the side of buildings, on railway carriages, under bridges, and particularly on large expanses of smooth bare concrete. The quality of the work can be highly variable but the best conveys some sense of what it is like to live in a particular place and social setting; street art is very much ‘local art’ contributing to, and expressing an opinion about the common urban space we share. One may not agree with the message conveyed, but there is no doubt that street art has the power to transform some of the more brutish urban infrastructure imposed on local neighbourhoods into something more human.

Some of the artwork is truly magnificent in terms of its conception, scale, and the technical virtuosity of the artists, but in many situations it is not valued by those who own or ‘control’ the structures on which it appears, being removed almost as soon as it appears. In other cases the value of street art in contributing to the city economy has been recognised, and it is not just tolerated but positively encouraged, in recognition of the crowds of tourists that will surely follow. One has only to think of the Bowery Wall in New York city; the Old Street/Brick Lane, and Leake Street tunnel areas of London ; or Bristol where admiring crowds of onlookers are drawn to the extensive murals (you can now take walking tours in Bristol – the city that describes itself as the street art capital of the UK). But this outcome transforms the nature of the product and street art can become commoditised, fetishised, protected, no more than a showcase for artistic prowess, and diminished in its power to create that sense of place which is the essential underpinning for any form of sustainable community development.

Eduardo Kobra on 25th Street at 10th Avenue in Chelsea in New York
Eduardo Kobra on 25th Street at 10th Avenue in Chelsea in New York

‘Who owns street art?’ is an interesting question and says something about the way society shares its public spaces (we need to differentiate here between artwork that is officially sanctioned and that which is not – we are focusing on the latter here). The owner of the finished work is not usually the artist, especially if the work is not formally ‘commissioned’, and applied to public buildings or private property. Who then owns it? Is it the local authority in the case of public buildings, or the property owner of the structure on which the art appears, or does it belong to everyone who can see it when they use or share that space in some way? Is street art some form of ‘public good’ available to everyone, or a ‘common pool resource’ where one person’s use may diminish that of another? In some ways it is both. We can certainly conceptualise street art as a common pool resource, since it is clear that one artist’s use of a space prevents another from using the same space. This is why we see (sometimes rapid) removal and over-painting of artwork where opportunities are limited, or there are a limited number of ‘prime sites’ for artistic expression and no rules controlling access to the resource (demonstrating the operation of what is more like an ‘open access regime’ in fact). But we can also view it as a public good available for many people to enjoy without any diminishment of its value.

Street art in the east end of London
Street art in the east end of London


The question that flows from these musings is:

what value can be placed on a work of art that appears in a public space, where ownership is uncertain or disputed, and where the product itself is impermanent, ephemeral, and constantly in danger of disappearing?’

A recent example is the ‘Banksy’ mural that appeared last year on the side of a house in an ordinary neighbourhood in Cheltenham; actually it is on the end of an artisan terrace that is shown as partly built in on an 1834 map of the town – so the building itself has some historical value . (Note – a ‘Banksy’ refers to a piece of street art believed to have been painted by ‘…a graffiti artist, political activist and film director whose real identity is unknown’.)

When the artwork appeared it revitalised, in a small way, the local urban community, and certainly transformed a drab road junction into something more interesting that said something about the people and the place in which they lived. The mural depicted three ‘spooks’ or spies in trenchcoats, on either side of a phone box (which was real) who were clearly there to record and transmit any calls made on the phone using the satellite dish fixed halfway up the wall (also an actual fixture). It said something about Cheltenham (home to GCHQ – the Government Communications Headquarters, or intelligence agency), and the larger society in which we live – where increasingly the perception is one where every move is watched and everything we say is listened to – just in case someone says something negative about the state. In the following months every time one passed through that road junction there would be one, or several people standing looking at it, and local retailers were reporting a rise, albeit small, in trade. But it was not long before rumours began to circulate that the owner of the house on which the mural was painted was negotiating with a London gallery to sell the artwork.

Banksy mural in Cheltenham – late 2014

Then one day workmen appeared, a wooden frame was constructed, and plywood covered the mural; it was privatised, captured by the property owner to maximise his personal profit. Local people objected and the town council stepped in to place a restriction on any material alterations to the building, effectively stopping removal of the mural. Months went by and nothing happened, then the plywood covering the wall disappeared and it was once more on display, but within a few weeks was ‘vandalised’ by someone else, expressing their own views of the work by spray painting all over it. Since then it has not altered, an interesting comment on society and local place, clearly treasured by (at least some) of the local community, but not by others who wanted to use the same space to make their own views felt, which in itself says something about the kind of society in which we live.

In the space of eighteen months the mural has gone from ‘public good’ (available to all) to private property (for individual gain – a form of ‘windfall profit’ since the artwork was essentially a free gift from the artist), and back to public good, though in a highly degraded form, leaving little but questions about how we manage street art and the benefits (and problems) it can bring. News reports certainly suggest that the art work has roused strong feelings, and ruined the life of the property owner, while clearly having some potential monetary value:

“The mural has been a source of controversy ever since it appeared – with people trying to steal it, vandals painting over it and business and communities fighting over ownership.”



There was clearly an attempt to remove the mural (including the bricks and external render on which it was painted), which was prevented, allegedly at the request of the owner. Rumours abounded of a potential sale to a London Gallery for an extremely large sum of money. As it is a Grade II listed building, however, any alteration or work to the building requires local authority consent, which was not granted, meaning the mural could not be removed legally. The current state of the property is poor, and deteriorating due to the events that have taken place. The house is now unoccupied, and there seems to be little care taken of the property. In addition the artwork has been vandalised through spray painting, and unless some attempt is made to protect and restore the work, it is likely to continue to degrade.

Banksy mural - October 2015
Banksy mural – October 2015

If street art, such as the ‘Cheltenham Banksy’, is a public good (available for all to use, where one person’s use or enjoyment does not diminish that of another), then the property rights framework that controls access to public goods will have a significant impact on the potential for capturing the benefits for the larger ‘public’. It would appear that in an ‘open access’ property rights context (i.e. where there is no clear ownership and no rules, or rules are uncertain or unlikely to be enforced), then these forms of street art will only ever be temporary. Someone else will always come along and either remove the work, appropriate the same space for themselves by painting over the work, or capture it for sale in order to derive personal profit. If the work is to be managed as a common pool resource, then somehow the space on which is painted needs some form of protection through regulations and enforcement – to stop other artists using it, or the property owner from erasing or removing it. With no clarity on ownership there is no incentive for anyone to pay for maintenance or restoration, and it will inevitably degrade over time.

The value of such work is therefore fleeting and difficult to capture, it is art to be enjoyed in the moment (like sand sculptures), but perhaps that is part of its attraction – it is a common good that is difficult to privatise for individual gain (although it can be captured temporarily as a public good as some cities are demonstrating). The value of this temporary art is in its transformation of the urban backdrop, giving character to the spaces we share in common, and providing a form of communication between different parts of a community that may not otherwise talk to each other. In that sense it needs to be temporary, in order to reflect the changing nature of a neighbourhood and issues of concern, allowing for different sectors of a community to express their views that help create the ‘sense of place’, and the conversations that a city is having with itself. These are therefore very much ‘ephemeral commons’, valued most by those who share a common urban time and space for a short period, and then replaced as the conception of their community alters. To remove such art from its setting diminishes the value not only of the art, but of the locality in which it appears. The monetary gain for those few individuals trading in such works might be high, but the loss in value in terms of cultural significance once it is removed from the locale, is even higher.

Tussles over cultural heritage are not limited to street art; these issues also relate to other forms of cultural heritage that are traded in the market. For example, there is currently an argument occurring between the state of Spain and the current owner of a Picasso painting. The owner wanted to sell the work abroad but was denied an export licence, which did not stop him from transporting the painting in his private yacht and the work was seized at sea by the Spanish government which had declared the work a ‘national treasure’.

There are similar discussions in the UK and in other countries relating to whether the cultural heritage of a country should be sold to the highest bidder, where it often disappears from public view, or provided by the state as a ‘public good’, as part of the shared heritage of a society or community. The market value of such cultural treasures can vary enormously depending on the extent to which property rights are constrained, just as it has with the Banksy street art at the local level in Cheltenham. If the full rights of private ownership for street art are allocated to individuals, then those individuals may stand to gain financially, to the detriment of the larger community who would suffer the loss of the ‘cultural capital’ created by the art work. When to assign private property rights to allow individuals to benefit from individual ownership, and when to alter the property rights framework to enable provision of ‘public goods’ are questions with which society wrestles on a daily basis. The arguments can be convoluted and of long duration, as we have seen with the Elgin Marbles held by the British Museum; were they ‘looted’ from Athens, or taken into ‘protective custody’ for future generations? The answers, as well as the arguments, are not always clear, and often very subjective.



Exploration of different forms of urban commons, such as street art, conducted through the lens of commons theory, provides a means of conceptualising cultural heritage in terms of the existing property rights framework, and characteristics relating to how easy or hard it is to exclude people from using a resource, and whether one persons’ use detracts from another person’s use and enjoyment of the good. It provides an opportunity to examine alternative approaches to managing different forms of ‘cultural heritage’. Some of these issues, including the notion of the ‘city as commons’, will be examined at a conference in Bologna early in November, and are also being studied in the CCRI on-line courses on commons.