Why Restoring a Banksy Mural in Venice Is So Controversial

Critics argue that the street artist may have intended for the work to deteriorate over time

Migrant Child
Banksy's Migrant Child has endured damage from the elements since it appeared in 2019.  Marci Bertorello / AFP via Getty Images

In 2019, the enigmatic street artist Banksy painted a mural on the walls of an abandoned Venetian palace. Titled Migrant Child, the work is a commentary on the refugee crisis: It depicts a young migrant in a life jacket holding up a flare emitting pink smoke, and it’s become a major tourist attraction for the city.

Since it appeared four years ago, Migrant Child has faded due to “humidity, high water and salt,” according to a statement from Italy’s culture ministry. Now, officials have announced plans to restore the mural. Responses to the decision have been mixed.

“As an advocate of conservation, I would say that the work should be detached from the wall, protected and exhibited in safe conditions,” Marco Goldin, an Italian art critic, tells Corriere del Veneto’s Marianna Peluso, per Google Translate. “On the other hand, if I put myself in the artist’s shoes, I don’t think this is the idea with which his works were born.”

Critics of the decision think the mural’s eventual degradation was part of the artist’s vision. “Banksy was no fool; he was fully aware that his waterside creation wasn’t meant to endure. Restoring it goes against the grain,” says the street artist Evyrein to Euronews’ Lucie Tournebize.

Evyrein adds, “I’ve experienced having one of my own pieces restored with the best intentions, and despite the heartfelt gesture, the end result was less than desirable. If I were ever asked to alter a fellow artist’s work, I would decline unless I had their explicit consent.”

Plans to restore the Banksy began after the palace’s owner informed the Italian Superintendence of Cultural Heritage of the mural’s worsening condition. However, the state body only intervenes in the preservation of artworks that are at least 70 years old.

Venice’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, and the president of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, then called on Vittorio Sgarbi, an undersecretary in Italy’s culture ministry.

“I took action immediately and obtained the availability of a banking foundation that will cover the expenses,” says Sgarbi in the culture ministry’s statement. “I take responsibility for the intervention as I have responsibility for contemporary art, and it is my job to protect it.”

Migrant Child is in a highly trafficked area along the Rio Novo canal in the heart of Venice’s university district. The work is stenciled on the lower part of the palace building, which is usually left unpainted due to splashing waves from passing boats, according to Artnet’s Adam Schrader.

The water damage on Migrant Child reflects larger challenges the city of Venice faces as it confronts climate change and overtourism. “Venice is at very real risk of being consumed by the sea. In worst-case scenario, the city could disappear beneath the waves by as early as 2100,” wrote BBC Future Planet’s Joseph Phelan last year. “Meanwhile, many of its buildings are sinking or being damaged by the wakes of boats. It is also routinely overwhelmed by tourists, while its local population is in a state of continual decline.”

Before the Italian authorities step in, many think they should at least speak with Banksy about whether the restoration is appropriate.

“Prior to initiating any restoration efforts, it is imperative to consult both the artist and the local community,” Rosanna Carrieri, an activist with the Mi Riconosci association, which works with cultural heritage professions, tells Euronews. “Otherwise, it risks becoming a top-down endeavor capitalizing on Banksy’s fame.”

Sgarbi disagrees, arguing that he has an obligation to protect art like Bansky’s. “We are not interested in whether or not the work is more than 70 years old, nor whether the author is alive nor whether he gives us consent to the restoration, since, among other things, the mural was created ‘illegally,’” he says in the statement.

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