Banksy is raising $13 million to help convert a British prison that once held Oscar Wilde into a community art center

Banksy prison mural
Members of the public take pictures of a mural painted by Banksy at Reading Prison on March 5, 2021. Ming Yeung/Getty Images
  • Banksy is pushing to convert a decommissioned UK prison into an art and cultural center.
  • The artist plans on raising $US13 ($AU19) million to fund the center by selling a stencil he used to paint a mural on the prison.
  • The site once imprisoned author Oscar Wilde and holds cultural significance to the community.

Banksy is offering to pay millions in a bid to save a former UK prison site from falling to developers.

The elusive artist announced his plan to help transform the Reading Prison in Bristol into a “refuge for art” on Saturday, which includes raising $US13 ($AU19) million to match the jail’s asking price and prevent the site from being turned over to a housing development. 

Though the Ministry of Justice, the organization managing the sale of the prison, closed bids in early 2021, Banksy’s contribution would add to an existing bid from Reading Borough Council, a local government body also trying to preserve the site. Together, the funding would amount to a grand total of $US16.6 ($AU24) million. 

The prison first received attention in March when a new mural titled “Create Escape” appeared overnight on a perimeter wall of the jail. The appearance of the art — which depicts a man rappelling down the wall with a rope and a typewriter — accompanied an announcement video from Banksy in which he claimed the piece as his own in the style of a Bob Ross painting tutorial.

A post shared by Banksy (@banksy)

 

The mural was widely thought to depict renowned author, Oscar Wilde, who was incarcerated at Reading Prison and served two years of hard labor from 1895 to 1897 under “gross indecency” charges. Wilde was discovered to be in a gay relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, which was a crime in nineteenth-century England. 

Wilde was “the patron saint of smashing two contrasting ideas together to create magic,” Banksy said, according to the Guardian. “Converting the place that destroyed him into a refuge for art feels so perfect we have to do it.”

Banksy said he intends to get the $US13 ($AU19) million through the sale of the stencil he used to paint “Create Escape,” which went on display at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in December.

Actors Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, and Natalie Dormer have publicly shared their support for the Banksy-backed campaign to convert the jail into a cultural center, the Guardian reported. Local government officials also declared their support to preserve the building.

“The council has had only informal approaches from representatives of Banksy to date, but no detailed discussions,” Reading Borough Council leader Jason Brock told the Guardian. “Our bid remains firmly on the table and has widespread support – both from within the community here in Reading and from the wider arts, heritage and cultural community – all of whom recognize the prison’s huge historical and cultural value.”

The Ministry of Justice did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment on the sale of the prison.