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The Arts

actually unpleasantly surprised, feeling that their integrity as curators had been compromised by ‘intruders’ having the freedom of their collections. I recall walking past the museum on the Thursday evening before the unveiling and peering into the rather scruffily masked plate windows, taped over with sheets of paper, the doors labelled with A4 notices ‘Closed For Essential Maintenance Work’. We now know that the weeks leading

up to those frantic few days of installation had been fraught indeed. Significantly, it started with a cold call from the artist himself. The curators who picked it up and ran with the idea were running a real risk; after all in mid-2009 Banksy was still an outlaw to many in the council. The waste and cleaning department had been irritated by the popular vote to preserve the Banksy painting of the naked man opposite the Council House. And although Banksy clearly had a deep affection for the museum recollected from his many childhood visits, his last public utterance about such places had been rather salacious: “As far as I can tell the only thing worth looking at in most museums of art is all the schoolgirls on daytrips with the art departments.”

had to conduct clandestine mobile phone conversations in quiet corners of normally crowded museum offices, a relationship of trust had to be established, and negotiations conducted using code-words and pseudonyms. Surprise was paramount. Fewer than six staff across the whole of the city council knew about the Banksy project and they agonised over whether it was some horrible hoax that would end badly. It might surprise many to learn that a

I LEARNED THAT the curators

contractual agreement was actually drawn up between Banksy, his crew and the City Council. Graffiti artists don’t normally ‘do’ contracts. Civil servants don’t do much without them. However, without some form of contract Banksy couldn’t dictate his own terms and the museum would run the risk of being exposed should something go wrong. It can still be viewed online – all 14 pages of it – redacted (blacked out) in many places, and accompanied by numerous emails, one of which begs the artist to ‘stay schtum’ as the museum and their lawyers clambered up the ‘mountain of work’ that faced them.

vans in July 2011 Banksy, his voice heavily disguised, recalled with affection “the classic Bedford, gloopy tiny little row of headlights shining out from a droopy bonnet; yeah, it was made for selling ice-cream right? Because it looked like one.” Adding, with characteristic edge, “it was a childhood thing gone wrong, really; slight loss of innocence, the broken shards of a burnt- out husk of Britain – but still with a soft centre.” How could anyone not have warmed to an artist whose crew member told a journalist trying to get an interview “Sorry, Mr Banks is away polishing one of his yachts…”

The tamer - tamed Given the eventual success of the show

it’s now hard to remember the actualities of the time. The stakes were high on both sides. Not only had the cultural chiefs closed their flagship building for over 48 hours without being able to tell their own staff why, but they had allowed what some might regard as a motley crew of hooded youth and ‘urban guerillas’ the freedom to roam at will amongst galleries of rather expensive paintings, rooms full of historic artefacts, and the largest collection of Chinese ceramic-ware in Europe. And, of course, they had no idea what to expect when the doors were opened to the public. Their story is retold in the book. They don’t, however, tell the full detail

of the story and neither should we expect to have it revealed. Anonymity is essential to the Banksy myth. Still, it would have been fascinating to know how he and his crew managed to drag and assemble an ice-cream van into the lobby of the museum, or how they actually placed the orange–suited Guantanamo Bay figure in the middle of the flimsy balsa-wood box aeroplane that hovers over the main entrance. How could this show not have proved

so popular? The sight that greeted unsuspecting museum staff arriving for work on the opening day was the husk of a burnt-out ice-cream van. The choice was not random or a mere whimsy. In a BBC Radio 4 documentary on ice-cream

Although some contributors suggest in this book that they know

the ‘true’ identity of Banksy (indeed that ‘fact’ can be found within a few seconds of searching Wikipedia) the general public seems to have actually lost interest. By comparison, there is an increasing interest in how a large city like Bristol relates to Banksy, how he and his breed of artists speak for the city, and somehow represent a dimension of the city that is often difficult to quantify – its ‘spirit of innovation, creativity and unorthodoxy’ or what the UK Rough Guide describes as an unusual blend of ‘new technologies, the arts and a vibrant youth culture [that] have helped to make this one of Britain’s most cutting edge cities.’

no sign of abating – it is lively, current and dynamic. The 2009 exhibition was just a staging post in a longer narrative about the city, its streets and its mutating identity, or as Banksy puts it: Graffiti ultimately wins out over proper


art because it becomes part of your city, it’s a tool; “I’ll meet you in that pub, you know, the one opposite that wall with a picture of a monkey holding a chainsaw.” I mean, how much more useful can a painting be than that?

Banksy: The Bristol Legacy Edited by Paul Gough, Published by Redcliffe Press, April 2012, Price £14.99 Clifton Life 37

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