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Museum banners: High art, indeed

Four years ago, an eight-foot-tall banner depicting Swedish ball bearings on a crimson field fluttered from a Manhattan light pole, touting the reopening of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Today, it hangs in Peter Knockstead's dining room in Washington.

"It just spoke to me from a modern sense," says Knockstead, events manager for the American Diabetes Association. "And how cool is it that you know the provenance of it? I was told it was hung on Fifth Avenue."

Dawn Laguens was smitten by a banner showing a detail of Georgia O'Keeffe's "Red Hills With Flowers" at the Art Institute of Chicago. She bought one last Christmas for her partner, Jennifer Treat, and now the ceiling-height work radiates red, yellow and magenta in their D.C. living room.

"They are oversize, they are very affordable and they seem like reuse, which I love," says Laguens, a Democratic fund-raising consultant.

Both banners came from BetterWall, a 4-year-old Denver company that scouts, buys and sells these outdoor exhibition promos from 25 U.S. museums and galleries. They are impact pieces. Measuring from six to eight feet tall and 30 to 36 inches wide, they are as large and bold as most rooms can take.

All of them once hung from light poles or building fronts, and most are printed on both sides to catch the eye of drivers and pedestrians. Their sturdy vinyl material, fade-proof inks and wind slits mean they can survive outdoors for years. Prices start at $300, with the rarest examples costing $1,495. All include free shipping, hardware and hanging instructions.

The company (www.betterwall.com) was born of the enthusiasm of art historian Nora Weiser, 38, who ran a Denver museum shop alliance, and her husband, Nicolas, 39, who worked for an environmental consulting firm. Both were searching for a home business to meld their professional expertise and give them more time with their two children.

Nora Weiser acquired their first banner after the 1997 exhibition of Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh she co-curated at the art institute. When the couple left Chicago for Denver, it moved with them.

"Everyone who walked into our house would say, 'Wow, where did you get it? Can I get one of those?' " Weiser say. "They were fascinated by the idea that it was a street banner." One night when they were kicking around business possibilities, she says, her husband hit on an idea: "Let's sell those banners."

They pitched a "recycle and reuse" concept to dozens of museums, knowing that once an exhibit ended, "they would throw the banners out. They are dirty, they are big and kind of an unwieldy product to have." Cleaned up, however, they are affordable art with a back story.

"Most people pick the banner that appeals to them on an aesthetic level. They just really like the image, or maybe they were in a city and saw the exhibit there," Weiser says. "Designers buy things for clients. They are not so interested in the artist but the look, maybe black and white."

Current stock includes promos for Amish quilts from the Denver Art Museum, a black-and-white Chuck Close self-portrait from a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and an image of a Japanese geisha that once flapped outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In the museum-rich D.C. area, only the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Baltimore Museum of Art have been BetterWall suppliers. The couple has contacted "art-focused" Smithsonian facilities, Weiser says, but has not been able to get past bureaucratic obstacles. "The people with whom I spoke at the museums loved the idea and were interested in participating, but various rules and regulations didn't seem to allow it."

The Phillips sent BetterWall 13 lamppost banners heralding the opening of its five-story addition in 2006 after years of construction. The banner for "The Renoir Returns" pictures one of the museum's most famous paintings, "Luncheon of the Boating Party." It was one of many of the collection's impressionist works that traveled the world during the renovation.

After an exhibition closes, BetterWall pays to have the banners shipped to Denver, where they are cleaned and stored. The couple negotiates with artists, their estates, galleries or museums that own the copyrights for the image on each banner, be it a Ming Dynasty vase or a Picasso nude. They also pay an undisclosed royalty to the exhibiting museum for each banner sold, Weiser says.

The Weisers are motivated partly by affection for the banners and partly out of concern for the environment. Nora Weiser estimates they have kept 15 tons of plastic fabric out of landfills since 2004.

Today they are in talks with the National Gallery in London to secure rights to sell banners bearing a detail from Monet's "The Beach at Trouville," which graced banners for "Impressionists by the Sea." That Phillips show closed in January.

"We didn't see a downside," says Ann Greer, communications director for the Phillips. "It means a little bit of income for us, which is a percentage of sale price. They negotiate rights, which is something we wouldn't have time to do. Even if we own the work of art, it doesn't mean we have the copyright."

A pioneer in the field when the company started, BetterWall now has competition. Last year, Los Angeles graphic designer Tom McFarlan, 34, began a side business selling exhibition banners. He says he gets them from "contacts" at several California museums but would not discuss details of his business.

Using fixed prices on eBay (stores.ebay.com/citybannerchic) rather than auction bidding, McFarlan charges from $49.99 for a banner featuring the Hindu goddess Durga from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena to $399.99 for an image by Robert Smithson from a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Knockstead, thrilled with the dramatic MoMa ball bearings in his dining room, last year sprung for a $139.99 two-sided banner from McFarlan that now hangs in his back yard. One side features a bejeweled Tara Buddha in saffron robes, from a Norton Simon exhibit; the other depicts an Indian woman in a garden.

"I painted the garage wall blue so it would really pop," Knockstead says. "What I love is that I can stand inside the house and see both banners."