On June 21, the Brooklyn Museum announced its cancellation of next year’s “Art in the Streets,” a graffiti exhibition that debuted recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles. The show had been scheduled at the Brooklyn Museum for March 30 through July 8, 2012, but was struck “due to the current financial climate,” museum director Arnold Lehman wrote in an official press release. Jeffrey Deitch, director of MoCA and long-time NYC art dealer, conceived “Art in the Streets” as more than just graffiti-style canvas paintings and examples of poster-art tagging—he also transported actual walls and panels that some of the better graffiti was originally painted on, reassembling them inside MoCA’s space.
As the exhibit closed in Los Angeles on August 8, Deitch declared that attendance ran between 5,000 and 6,000 per day, numbers comparable to the Met’s recent Alexander McQueen exhibition. It made “Art in the Streets” the highest-grossing exhibition in MoCA’s history. When asked whether returns such as these would change the mind of the Brooklyn Museum, its public information officer, Sally Williams, noted that it wasn’t an issue of whether the museum could recoup, but whether the up-front costs to bring it here could be met. “The show is extremely expensive to transfer,” notes Williams. “We’d love to host it, but we couldn’t raise the needed financial support.”
Despite the show’s cancellation in NYC, Deitch seems optimistic about finding a home for it in the museum world. “The Brooklyn Museum just expressed interest first,” explains Deitch. “But there’s so much interest in bringing this to New York.” Neither the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, nor the Whitney Museum would confirm any conversation with Deitch.
The show is not without its share of local New York detractors. Peter Vallone, city councilman for District 22 in Astoria, has vowed to continue his fight to stop “Art in the Streets” from ever being displayed here.
“Ever since I was little,” says Vallone, “graffiti has bothered me. That someone had the right to deface someone else’s property rubbed me the wrong way.”
“I’m against the promotion of vandalism in any way, shape or form,” continues Vallone, who feels that graffiti is a gateway to bigger criminal activity.
“[Vallone] should come and see our show,” counters Deitch, who claims that the demographic of MOCA visitors spanned from teenagers to elderly adults. “We haven’t had one reported instance of vandalism or violence from anyone who’s been to the exhibit.”
Yet if “Art in the Streets” attempts to legitimate modern graffiti with sweeping examples like Keith Haring’s early subway drawings, paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf’s black-lit Cosmic Cavern, as well as works by less widely known artists such as Neckface, Teen Witch, and Ed Templeton, its greater effect might be to encourage a generation of graffiti artists to favor fine-art aspiration and commercialism over the streets.
According to a South Bronx graffitiartist who calls himself Dasic, the art form doesn’t need institutional validation. For him, the relationship between artist and authority requires more than simple legitimization.
“When we are painting in the streets, we are not thinking of crime,” says Dasic, a twentysomething who moved from Chile less than a year ago with no formal art school training. “That is a label from the system, as is the whole concept of privatization. For us, every space is a part of our art. It’s a hard concept for people who think in terms of ownership.”