On the one-year anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown, Banksy’s painting Game Changer, a touching tribute to key workers, sold for £16.8million with proceeds going to support the NHS charities.
During the first lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, many people around the UK displayed rainbows in the windows of their homes to show their gratitude to key workers and particularly the nation’s health service, which was bearing the brunt of the crisis – on top of the pressures of government ineptitude and years of austerity. Always keen to capture the spirit of a moment, notorious street artist Banksy went one step further and painted Game Changer in recognition of the NHS key workers’ tireless work. Here we take a closer look at the painting, the meaning behind its subject, and its auction-record sale on 23 March 2021.
Measuring one metre square and painted mostly in monochrome tones, the work shows a young boy in dungarees playing with a doll dressed in an old fashioned nurse’s uniform complete with a red cross on her chest, a face mask and a cape. He holds the figure over his head so that she appears frozen in flight with one arm aloft in a pose reminiscent of comic book superheroes such as Batman and Spiderman whose figurines lie forgotten in the wastepaper basket on the floor next to him.
It’s an expression coined by millions but visualised by just one, perfectly: ‘Not all superheroes wear capes’ – with this work Banksy draws on the change in perception of key workers such as nurses during the pandemic. As the virus brought anxiety and grief to so many families and communities, the public turned to these figures and began recognising them as the important cogs without which society would collapse. As well as adopting the rainbow motif, many joined national demonstrations of appreciation such as clapping and cheering from doorsteps and paid tribute to these workers with heartfelt slogans, including the most popular ‘not all superheroes wear capes’.
Here Banksy has chosen to depict a nurse wearing a cape, in a nod to this new – and long awaited – recognition of key workers’ value, at the same time cleverly referencing the traditional uniform worn by nurses in the 1900s which would have included a navy cape with a red lining.
The work appeared in the foyer near the emergency department of Southampton General Hospital in May of 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic in the UK. It was accompanied by a note which read ‘Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.’ Two days after it was installed the work was almost stolen by a man who walked into the ward with a drill. Luckily he was caught by security and removed from the premises
As well as receiving 2.8 million likes and over 30,000 comments on Instagram, the work received praise from hospital workers from Southampton and beyond. Commenting on the donation of the painting, Paula Head, CEO of the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Our hospital family has been directly impacted with the tragic loss of much loved and respected members of staff and friends. The fact that Banksy has chosen us to recognise the outstanding contribution everyone in and with the NHS is making, in unprecedented times, is a huge honour.”
Estimated at £2.5-3 million, Game Changer achieved £16,758,000 when it was sold at Christie’s in London on 23 March 2021 – becoming the most expensive Banksy artwork at auction exactly one year to the day that the UK first went into lockdown.
All proceeds from the sale of Game Changer will be used to support the wellbeing of University Southampton Hospital staff and patients, instead of going into private hands – as was the case with Banksy’s Devolved Parliament in 2019. The oil painting reached an incredible £9.9 million under the hammer, yet Banksy saw none of the proceeds and commented on this in his Instagram post about the sale. This time around, he has donated Game Changer to the NHS hospital, ensuring the money can go to a good cause.
“On such a symbolic day of national reflection, we should give thanks to two national treasures, our wonderful NHS for their selfless heroism and Banksy for his enormous generosity and foresight in capturing the nations mood, yet again cementing him as the most relevant artist of modern history. Game Changer is a new record and means the NHS stands to benefit to the tune of £16.8m, a truly spectacular result,” MyArtBroker co-founder Ian Syer commented after the record-breaking sale.
The original Game Changer has been replaced by a reproduction, which now hangs in the same spot in the hospital.
The sale of Game Changer comes shortly after the Department of Health and Social Care’s recommendation of a paltry 1% pay rise for NHS staff. This announcement sparked protests by nurses demanding fair pay and decrying the empty gestures of gratitude favoured by the Tories, with slogans such as ‘Claps don’t pay bills’ and ‘The NHS saved Boris Johnson, now give us a pay rise’. And while the proceeds from the sale of the painting may not go to NHS staff directly it is hoped the money will help to improve the working conditions of health workers across the country at a time when public services are severely underfunded.
Despite the generosity of Banksy’s donation, many were quick to try and turn a profit from the artist’s good will. Websites around the world immediately took the image of the boy playing with his nurse doll and turned it into a print with some online galleries offering to pay just 25% of sales to local health charities. Meanwhile Banksy himself has not announced any plans to turn this now iconic image into a print.
While this may become one of his most profitable charity sales it is by no means Banksy’s first. The artist has a long history of generosity when it comes to charity including producing and selling artworks to benefit victims of terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis, and homelessness.
From a video of a tube carriage depicting sneezing rats to a picture of his own bathroom featuring his favourite rodents running amok – accompanied by the caption ‘My wife hates it when I work from home’ – Banksy has remained active both on social media and on the street throughout the pandemic. Recently he has also unveiled murals in Bristol, Nottingham and at Reading Gaol.