Urban renewal

Nothing better captures the hubris of the pre-credit crunch economy than the frenzy that surrounded the brash young urban art scene back in 2007. It was led by the ubiquitous yet faceless hooded graffiti artist Banksy, with his gently satirical spray-can art on walls from the East End of London to the Palestinian West Bank. Banksy’s work, and that of his ranks of imitators, sparked a remarkable trade in urban prints.

A savvy following saw a quick buck to be made out of the rapidly unfolding phenomenon. Despite issues of authentication and widespread rumours of forgeries, Banksy prints could increase 10-fold on their release price and be on to their third owner before they had even rolled off the screen presses.

“All of a sudden it was like the new gold rush,” says Steve Lazarides, chief gallerist, collector and entrepreneur of the new urban art scene. “You could go out, buy a Banksy print at 250 quid. The next day you could sell it for two and a half grand. What other investment is going to make 10 times your money overnight?

“And then the next owner, if they were lucky, could sell it on again for five grand ... so it was a no-brainer in those days of easy credit.

“We’d open a show and you’d have people running at you. You’d be trying to sell something to a client and you’d have someone tapping you on the shoulder ... saying ‘No, no, I want to buy it’. There was one instance where we caught someone flipping a work in the gallery before they’d even paid for it.”

It wasn’t just Banksy: there was a host of names who would sell out within minutes on the websites of publishers such as Pictures on Walls and Black Rat Press – Adam Neate, Anthony Micallef, Blek Le Rat, Dface, Faile, Nick Walker and Shepard Fairey and dozens of others – only to pop up on Ebay auctions moments later at much higher prices. And when the London auction house Bonhams held its first sale of urban art works in early 2008, the already inflated prices went through the roof. The auction, which consisted largely of prints, raised in excess of £1.2m, with an original work by Banksy, appropriately titled “Laugh Now”, fetching the highest price of the evening at £228,000.

After the financial collapse of that autumn, however, the market plummeted. Bonhams held two further urban art auctions: the first struggled to raise more than half the price of “Laugh Now” for the entire sale, while the second managed only a 47 per cent sale rate by value.

If there had been one individual responsible for whipping up and sustaining the fever around urban art, and who stood to lose most from its demise, it was Steve Lazarides. He had discovered Banksy on a chance photo shoot in Bristol in 2001 while working as picture editor of Sleaze Nation magazine, and brought him to public attention along with a roster of other urban artists. Having established Pictures on Walls, he helped transfer iconic, irreverent images from the sides of derelict buildings to the lounges of suburbia and through his first gallery in Soho, simply called Lazarides, he put canvases carrying these same images in the homes of rich bankers and Hollywood A-listers.

“We had a spectacular year in 2007 when we took three times the amount of money we took in any other year ... but the market took a battering after that,” he admits.

Standing in his flagship Rathbone Place gallery in London’s Fitzrovia, which he established in 2009, amid the bustle of final preparations for a show by his newest artist, Doug Foster, Lazarides looks every bit the successful survivor in his sharp grey suit and vermilion shirt. As he gives me a tour of this four-storey Georgian townhouse it becomes apparent that he is heading up an art business that, far from contracting during the recession, has undergone an ambitious expansion.

Even the office spaces are carefully curated, with obsessive attention to detail, with Lazarides’ favourite works, ranging from the Blake-like winged creatures of Anthony Micallef’s dark imagination to Jonathan Yeo’s unusual mix of portraiture and pornographic collage. The pièce de résistance, though, is what appears to be a fully functional hair salon nestled behind a hidden door on the top floor where a select clientele can be groomed by a top stylist while gazing at hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of chic street art.

Lazarides, who grew up above his father’s kebab shop in Bristol, shows the steely determination of the self-made businessman. “Everything I’ve done so far, all the expansion, has really happened in the recession. We only really started to find some sort of momentum in 2007 just before the rug was pulled. We moved to Rathbone Place just when it was beginning ... I’m immensely proud of the fact that the business is still going in 2011 when all we’ve done is reinvest every single penny we’ve made into expanding the business.”

Lazarides has also opened a gallery in Newcastle opposite the Baltic Gateshead, establishing a regional presence for his artwork and brand. He has also held a series of increasingly successful pop-up shows both here and in the US. His Dante-inspired Hell’s Half Acre show in The Old Vic Tunnels last October, in collaboration with Old Vic Theatre artistic director Kevin Spacey, was a particular success and a pointer to future direction.

If the urban movement still struggles for critical acclaim, Lazarides seems unconcerned. “When we did Hell’s Half Acre last year we had 15,000 people in six days. I don’t really need critical acclaim. Who is to say who are the taste makers? Not one among them was a stuffy-nosed critic who only wants to go to Tate Modern or Tate Britain.”

Lazarides most audacious move yet will see him take on the might of Art Basel Miami Beach in December, with his biggest US show yet, revolving around a venue with a capacity in excess of 90,000. He hopes to challenge the self-declared “most important art show in the United States” with a range of crossover events incorporating both music and film, working with Live Nation, the entertainment group, and the Tribeca Film Festival.

Despite the tough trading conditions, Lazarides concedes there has been a necessary price correction in the market. “I think the good thing for me now is that the good people held their mark. It dropped a bit but no more. None of the decent ones dropped off a cliff face ... there were some others in the scene who will never recover but I think that’s the same for any movement. I think it [the credit crunch] really did sort the wheat from the chaff.”

He says he has been sustained in part by the insatiable appetite of US buyers, particularly those in Los Angeles.

“You forget quite how much money there is in Hollywood. Just because you’ve had this false economy of bankers going mental for like 10 years, it kind of eclipsed everything else. The people there always seem to have the money to buy stuff. They’re incredibly receptive to new art. I find business easier to do in the States than here.”

But showing and selling in the US is a risky business. “When you’re spending a million dollars putting on four shows in four months it’s a risk. We’ve done OK, but you have to sell a lot of stuff with those kind of costs.”

Conscious of the fact that the high prices left many of the original urban art enthusiasts behind, he is attempting to rebuild the middle and lower end of the market, and intends to reintroduce the £50 print for more emerging artists, through his Outsiders brand. “We were the victims of our own success really: the prices went up and the stature of the artists went up a lot and it was difficult to bring in young kids who were selling at 500 quid ... the clients found it really difficult to understand,” he says.

Lazarides and Banksy parted company in 2009, a mysterious split about which both parties have remained tight-lipped. Urban art’s most famous practitioner is now represented by an authentication service called Pest Control.

Post-credit crunch and post-Banksy, the kind of art Lazarides is promoting is also maturing and changing. The new show in Rathbone Place will seem a radical departure for many followers of the street art scene, as Doug Foster’s white-tiled asylum-like setting for his dystopian video and sculptural work would not look out of place on a Turner Prize shortlist. But Lazarides disputes that his stable of artists was ever just about urban or street art. Rather, he says, it was the reflection of a populist eye and the need to keep things fresh.

“It’s boring doing the same thing over and over,” he explains. “The crowd that comes to my shows will genuinely like [the latest show] because they are genuinely open-minded about accepting new things and new forms of art.”

And Lazarides is now seeking out new places where underground art is formed – as it always is – in a crucible of rapid social change. “At the moment I’m looking outside the west. I’m fairly bored by what’s going on here at the moment. I’m looking to different markets. I’ve found some fantastically cutting-edge stuff out in the Middle East,” he says, outlining planned scouting trips to São Paulo, Hong Kong, Doha and Dubai.

“I know some of these sound like strange places to go to find underground art but I found works in these places that have really made me go ‘wow’.”

Doug Foster’s ‘In the Naughty Chair’, Lazarides Gallery, London until February 17; www.lazinc.com

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