What’s the difference between a paint-sprayed wall that’s little more than vandalism and street art that defines the heart and soul of a city? In others words, when does graffiti become street art?

It’s a question that my young son and I chew over as we walk in and around Bristol, a city in transition which is undergoing an architectural and cultural gentrification that divides local opinion.

Two years ago Angus Harrison wrote a blog on the Bristol culture website titled ‘Make Bristol Shit Again’ in which he mourned how his home city’s working class soul was being eroded by the relentless march of modernity.

Wherever we live change is reflected through evolving fashions, whether it’s the growing penchant for European café culture that bloomed in the Nineties or the glass-and-steel architecture trends that dominate our skylines today.

And art has always been a good barometer for the changing societal trends through the ages, and certainly where Bristol’s concerned, nothing much has changed in that regard.

The city’s art scene has long been rooted in the distinctively urban – in the city that launched graffiti as a bonafide art form in its own right, how could it be otherwise? And it’s through art that Bristol remains relentlessly true to its history.

Where some towns and cities doggedly cling to their tradition and reputation at the expense of what others might see as progress, Bristol’s strength as a cultural centre lies in its ability to allow new and old to thrive alongside each other.

The arts scene in Bristol has a near-audible buzz about it because it’s always been open to all. Fine art co-exists with graffitied murals on city walls and each is celebrated with equal passion. 

In fact, art may well be the one true meritocracy that exists in this colourful corner of Western England.

It’s a city of community art trails and not-for-profit arts centres, of home-based exhibitions by artists you’ve never heard of but might in the future; it’s art that isn’t limited to canvasses and, most importantly of all, an awful lot of it is free.

As a hub that allows you access to art – whatever the medium, whether you’re walking down a street or gliding through a slick fine art gallery – Bristol is a gold standard and an absolutely vital cog in the long-term health of the UK’s art scene.

Savvy and well-regarded Bristol galleries, such as Hidden and That, actively celebrate artistic diversity by showcasing famous names alongside lesser-known but no less accomplished urban and contemporary artists.

And it’s the come-one-come-all inclusivity that’s such a distinctive part of Bristol’s DNA – not just as cultural petri dish, but also through its historic role as a major English port – that not only makes it a critical part of our art history, but also ensures that it will always be the place where all-comers have the chance to show the world what they can do.

Banksy may be the city’s prodigal son, but he’s only the tip of a vibrant hotbed of endeavour and talent that make this part of the world so fascinatingly relevant.

So… when does a graffiti become street art? I’ll get back to you on that.

The Mild WIld West - Banksy

The Mild Mild West is a mural by graffiti artist Banksy, sited on No. 80 Stokes Croft, Bristol. It depicts a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police.

Banksy drew the artwork over three days in broad daylight in 1999. It was drawn in response to various unlicensed raves and parties held in abandoned warehouses around Bristol in the 1990s, that drew increased attention from the police. A specific trigger for the mural was such an event at Winterstoke Road, where riot police began to attack partygoers.

The artwork is popular with the local community who consider it a good symbol of the heritage around Stokes Croft. It has been cited as an archetypal piece of Bristol culture, showing how a relaxed hippie can still fight back against the government and commercialisation.

In April 2009, the artwork was vandalised with red paint by an anti-graffiti organisation called Appropriate Media, but was quickly repaired. Bristol City Council announced plans to enclose the mural in glass in front of new flats, which was criticised by the local community because it would make it harder to see from the street. Coexist, an organisation managing regeneration of Stokes Croft, did not understand the vandalism. Their spokesman said, "I don't see how spraying red paint is helping with the positive change" and was happy that volunteers quickly came together to repair it. A dressmaking shop opposite the mural has complained about graffiti, and that continual cleaning has begun to damage the Bath stone walls.

Source: Wikipedia




Begin with the end in mind

Habit #2 of Stephen R Covey’s seminal book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is ‘Begin With The End In Mind.’ If you are an art gallery owner, this is advice worth heeding.

Your goal should be to create a comprehensive archive of engaging content. Start the process now and you will most definitely reap the rewards in the future. Think long term. 5 to 10 years from today. How much value will there be for visitors to your website if they can track the evolution of key artists, year-on-year, through well-crafted video and photojournalism?

Art galleries and artists now need to find different ways – ways that extend far beyond the physical walls of an exhibition space – to tell the stories of the work they create and represent, to build awareness of the individual and his or her portfolio and, ultimately, to create a successful sales environment. 

How much more powerful might it be for potential buyers and advocates to see in context and through a comprehensive archive of online video an artist’s development from their earliest work through to the present day?

Online users now have many thousands of works literally at their fingertips. To be able to access and interact with any one of them is now literally within the gift of any individual artist or gallery – and the effects can be compelling.


Create a commotion

Take the New York-based visual artist Bradley Theodore and the Paint the Wraith video New England art-directed with him for Maddox Gallery in Mayfair. 

Creating a work of art on a £250,000 Rolls Royce Wraith outside the gallery had two obvious benefits: first, it became a live public art event outside the gallery that generated interest in the gallery and Bradley Theodore himself; second, it showed the provenance of an artist work as it was created. 

There was a third benefit not obvious on the day in the shape of an ongoing partnership with Rolls Royce.

Consider a series of films just like that one that are just a click away and think about the way in which it might bring an artist and his or her market closer together, and you begin to see a wealth of opportunity.


Video is a big deal

Content, as Bill Gates famously observed, may be king, but as Buzzfeed’s former CEO Jonathan Perelman countered: distribution is queen, and she wears the pants. 

The question now is how artists and galleries can find channels that reinforce reputations, build trust, attract deeper engagement and create lasting support and loyalty – all key parts of a successful sales funnel.

It’s said that in two years 85% of all online content will be delivered by video. The percentage of online users who prefer video to text already stands close to 60%. More than 500 million people watch video on Facebook every day. Users upload 72 hours of video content to YouTube every 60 seconds.

YouTube – now owned by Google, of course, and populated solely by video and video animation – is the second largest search engine in the world and has to be part of any contemporary video strategy.

It’s no coincidence that the smart gallery owners and entrepreneurial artists are now looking to invest in high-quality, well-produced, in-depth engaging video, photojournalism and other rich content over a long period of time to build traction with an audience that is already wise to the opportunities online channels can offer.

By doing that, online users can quickly and easily stay up-to-date with existing and emerging talent, keep an eye on the prime movers, shakers and innovators among in the art world and see within a few clicks the growing reputation of the artist. 

Art provenance is no longer constrained to paperwork and authenticated signatures. Art provenance is now in seeing that art created in real time on the screen or viewed in a gallery from many hundreds of miles away.

And future success lies in recognising and understanding the value of that opportunity.




Understanding a growing trend

The analogue world is in decline. Even art, the most tangible and tactile of media, is no longer immune to consumer-driven demand for keyboard convenience.

Whilst there’s certainly a place for traditional galleries where connoisseurs, buyers and admirers can interact personally with the work of artists, the growing trend toward online galleries and e-commerce now holds a significant slice of the sector.

Even as few as ten years ago, this would have seemed an unlikely growth market. Art is, by nature, intensely personal. Even if it can’t be touched, it demands to be seen ‘in the flesh’ and in the best possible light – literally. 

The commercial opportunities that online galleries and sales sites offer now in relation to the marketing and sale of exclusive artworks at £100,000+ transcend ongoing concerns around provenance, fraud and security that were the original barriers to entry into the market.

So, what’s driving growth and where does that leave traditional galleries that eschew digital platforms in favour of a traditional and time-trusted approach to both showing and selling the work of their artists? How will online galleries change the landscape for buyers and artists? And what will the art world look like in five- or ten-years’ time?


Is growth the product of learned behaviour?

If necessity is the mother of invention, then it could be said that social change is the mother of innovation. We invent to meet need. We innovate to meet demand.

We’ve been able to buy goods online since the mid- to late-Nineties. Product and service retail as an online sector is one that’s now been around for 20+ years. Yet its growth has been incremental. 

In 1997, buying a CD online from America for $8 was one thing. Doing your banking online would have been inconceivable – not because it wasn’t technologically possible, but because, as consumers, our habits were different. We knew and trusted visiting a branch and talking to a member of staff.

Consumerism relies on early-adopters to drive take-up, and the reality is that some areas of consumer behaviour require more courage than others. 

Buying an original piece of art for less than £100 has been pretty commonplace for a long time now. Spending £50K, £250K or more on a piece you’ve only seen on a computer screen takes a leap of faith that, until now, has not been for the faint of heart.

As humans, we’re programmed to follow the example of others. We’re happier in a herd. In that context, it’s not difficult to see why the growth of online galleries selling high-end works has only happened relatively recently compared to other retail sectors. It has needed the innovators and the early-adopters to put their trust in instinct and believe a market could be developed.

And the innovation hasn’t stopped there, of course. Those concerns over transparency, fraud, trust, provenance and good faith transactions continue to benefit from the development of demand-driven technology that makes the consumer experience safer and more rewarding.

Much as artificial intelligence can now use your online habits to learn what content to put in front of you, so the AI being built into online galleries is designed to navigate you to highly-desirable work you’ll want to own in fewer clicks.

As with all technology, once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s impossible to put back. Until 2012, the only way to be driven around London safely was in the back of a black cab. Seven years later, we can’t imagine life without Uber. It’s such a part of the new cultural DNA that it’s become a verb. 

In the same way, now that it’s started, the digital revolution in the fine and high-end art sector is irreversible – the only question that remains is to what extent it will squeeze traditional galleries housed in physical spaces.


Is it the beginning of the end for traditional galleries?

The short answer is no. 

When vinyl recordings were introduced, it was impossible to imagine any sort of technology that might replace them. Yet only a few short years later – the blink of an eye in human chronology – we’d seen cassettes, CDs, laser discs, minidiscs, mp3 players and downloads render them virtually extinct.

Yet, here we are in 2019, more than thirty years after Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms became the first CD-only release, and vinyl is back in a big way.

What do we learn from that? While we can never say never about future tech, the life cycle of vinyl suggests that for all that we devour convenience, we also require a human experience that technology is unlikely to replace or adequately replicate.

For bricks-and-mortar galleries, there will always be a demand to be close to the art of artists. The question is whether that demand will be sufficient in and of itself to drive sales at a level that propels turnover to meet overheads and generate profit.

More likely is that the smart high-end galleries will evolve their online proposition in a way that allows them to downsize their physical presence into smaller spaces that become literal shop windows for their e-commerce business. In this way, they’ll likely showcase smaller collections that serve as an amuse bouche for the digital banquet at the back of the shop.

E-commerce in art is already big business, after all. More than £119m was spent at online auction with Christie’s alone between January and June 2018. Recent survey numbers are also compelling, with 47% of big-spenders having made an online purchase within the preceding 12-month period. 

More than 50% of big-spenders – defined as those spending more than £100,000 on art – visit online galleries multiple times a week. Growth in this sector is spectacular – rising 30% year-on-year. (Source: Art Market Guru)

That being the case, how existing traditional galleries manage the seemingly-conflicting demands of traditional audiences who are prepared to spend big money via e-commerce will largely dictate the fate of individual businesses. But the emergence of online galleries should not necessarily spell the end of those traditional platforms.


Online galleries as a marketing tool for artists

One of the biggest opportunities that online art galleries present is for the artists to promote themselves and their work directly to a buyer’s market that is already warm to them.

With the proliferative growth of social media and savvy users comes the chance to speak directly to the people you want to touch. That’s a powerful tool.

And that’s not just about artists selling original work with a price-tag to suit; it’s about devolving their work in such a way that puts it within the reach of people who will become fans but who might otherwise never set foot inside a ‘proper’ gallery.

This offers artists the scope to develop a different commercial model that drives brand recognition, loyalty and advocacy through more versatile product and merchandising development and evolution and, as a result, pricing strategies that allow anyone, anywhere to own a version of their work.

That will look like an attractive win-win for artists who currently rely on a gallery to sell work on their behalf through bespoke exhibitions or catalogues in return for a significant commission.

It doesn’t take a degree from LSE to see why growing your consumer base through better product diversity and reducing your cost per sale in the process has the potential to generate a better bottom line.

Online art galleries are here to stay. How traditional galleries fare as a result will largely be determined by how they augment and respond to that competition.