How This Enormous Keith Haring Mural Was Saved from Destruction
In 2007, a 40,000-pound chunk of wall featuring a 20-by-20-foot mural by the late Pioneer Works, the art nonprofit in Brooklyn’s waterfront Red Hook neighborhood.
The occasion for the mural’s re-unveiling was a launch party for a new line of Haring-branded gear by Lacoste. Much like its extraction almost 12 years earlier, the process of getting the mural to Brooklyn was not simple. Maneuvering the Haring-adorned slab of wall from the private collection where it normally lives to Red Hook involved two trailers, two cranes, various lifts, a New Jersey police escort, a barge, and a team of welders to rig the wall upright at Pioneer Works, according to art adviser Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, who, along with Lacoste’s Senior Vice President of Marketing Lisa Pilette, helped arrange the loan and transport of the mural.
“I thought of it like a Florentine fresco from the Renaissance, only a contemporary one. Frescos usually decorated a public space and I was always confident that the mural could return to public view,” Jacoby said. “With expertise in engineering and transport, what may appear impossible was in fact highly feasible.”
But back in 2007, when the building housing the mural was facing the wrecking ball, transporting Haring’s mural didn’t seem so feasible at all.
Haring painted the Boys Club Mural (1987) over the course of three days in September 1987 on an expansive blank wall inside the Pitt Street chapter of the Boys’ Club of New York (BCNY) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The playful composition is classic Haring, featuring swaths of bold colors and a côterie of his cartoonish characters rendered in thick black lines pursuing various activities offered at the BCNY, from swimming and boxing to painting. One figure types at a computer whose monitor Haring painted around an exit sign. After a celebratory event with members of the Boys’ Club, Haring moved on to his next community project, a series of murals and a large-scale sculpture for the Schneider Children’s Hospital (now the Cohen Children’s Medical Center) in Queens.
Haring’s Pitt Street mural remained a fixture of the Lower East Side community space until 2003, when the BCNY closed that facility, shutting the artwork away from the public. The nonprofit Common Ground (now known as Breaking Ground) bought the building and announced plans to demolish it to make way for affordable housing. And though the nonprofit recognized the importance of the mural, preserving it began to seem complicated, and prohibitively expensive.
“We were told it was probably impossible to remove the mural because it was on a load-bearing wall,” Dave Walsh, who was the director of housing development for Common Ground at the time, told the New York Times in 2007.
The mural’s predicament looked dire, until someone called in an art dealer.
“In 2007, Alberto and I were contacted by a friend whose childhood friend was working on the demolition of the Lower East Side Boys’ Club,” Dara Metz, who runs the Magnan Metz Gallery with Alberto Magnan, told Artsy. “After viewing the mural in the Boys’ Club, we felt certain that it had to be saved from destruction and that we were the ones to make it happen.”
Metz and Magnan agreed to rescue the wall, an engineering feat that would cost some $250,000; per the terms of their agreement, in exchange for saving the mural, they would get to sell it. One possible solution would have involved removing the wall wholesale before the Boys’ Club building came down, but that proved impossible. Instead, the mural would have to be secured and protected in place during the demolition.
“We were very lucky to have a friend that was a structural engineer and master rigger who came up with a brilliant system to encase and protect the mural while the building was demolished around it,” Metz said.
And then, when it was the only part of the Pitt Street Boys’ Club building left standing, the wall featuring Haring’s mural was carted to New Jersey for inspection by a conservator and, eventually, sold. At the time, experts cited by New York Times reporter Carol Vogel suggested Boys Club Mural could be worth between $4 million and $6 million; a 12-by-12-foot painting on a tarp had just sold for $2.8 million at Christie’s, setting a new auction record for Haring’s work. That sum has been surpassed 11 times since, including by the current Haring record-holder, a roughly 10-by-10-foot painting—half the size of the Boys Club Mural—that sold for $6.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2017.
Neither Metz nor Jacoby would identify the mural’s current owner, but both said plans for future exhibitions beyond the Pioneer Works display (which ends on May 12th) are in the works.
“We hope it remains in public view and are in the planning stage for next steps,” Jacoby said. “We are thinking globally and we know how to move it.”
Benjamin Sutton is Artsy’s Lead Editor, Art Market and News.