If you’re passionate about these things, you could live your whole life in the clothes of your favorite artists. It is possible to wake up, remove yourLouise Bourgeois eyes, and then take a sip from your Damien Hirst cup. After that, you can check your Ai Weiwei-covered smartphone before putting on your Van Gogh leggings. Tea sets, tea bags, dinner plates, model figures and swear boxes, as well as room spray, are all examples of artist merchandise. This thriving industry combines high art, high fashion, and high street.
Victoria Hooper, head copyright licensing at DACs (a non-profit organization that negotiates royalties to artists whose work has been republished), says, “Museum shops have become bigger and more museums are getting shops.” She says that arts organizations are seeing their funding cut and everyone in the sector is trying to find new ways to make money.
Artists know that merchandising is a common task. Rosey Blackmore is Tate’s merchandise director. “Warhol was the start of it,” she says. He was interested in how art could reflect everyday life. Many artists can see that merchandise is a very democratic way of getting their work out into the world.” For those without a spare PS2.5m to buy Tracey Emin’s My Bed, a PS12 Tracey eggcup is a good way of feeling as if we own a piece of her oeuvre.
How much profit can galleries and artists make? Tate Enterprises, which includes its cafe, shop and publishing wing, made PS2.8m profit in 2016-17. Blackmore claims that the Tate Modern scarf by Grayson Perry, which was designed for Tate Modern, is the best-selling item. Another hit is the PS15 Damien Hirst teacup & saucer and the PS4 Guerrilla Girls airfreshener, which promises to “eliminate patriarchy”.
Blackmore says, “Who would’ve thought an air freshener could be an appropriate thing for a museum shop?” It’s in line with the Guerrilla Girls message. Has anyone ever refused merchandise? “Of course, and that is something we fully respect. His estate was very open with us when we did the nbsp. Matisse exhibition a few years back. They only gave permission to reproduce his works on papers. Matisse was not interested in applied arts during his lifetime. His family feels it isn’t true to his memory.
Matisse may have had a different view if he were still alive today. According to Louisa Buck, the last 20 years have seen “artist as brand” a rise. She says that artists with a celebrity profile often venture into branded goods. “We live in a market-based society where people want to consume, and artists want their art to be shared with the world. They are creating more products to be sold on the market at all levels.”
She says Hirst is “really the past master of all this”. His expanding range of merchandise was housed in his series of shops, Other Criterio. You could purchase hand-signed toilet papers, iron-on poka dots, Tshirts, and tote bags. The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who combines fine art with pop culture, is another key figure. Buck says that he had a pop up Louis Vuitton shop at his LA show. Emin has an online merchandise business, as does David Shrigley.
Hooper claims that artists usually pocket between 5-10% of retail prices. She admits that it is not a big money-maker. Working with brands is where the real money is. “The more you spend on high-end products, the more you will see collaborations with artists. That’s probably a different pricing structure.”
Fashion’s embrace of the art world has become more marked in recent years. Uniqlo’s collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art is one of many such ventures, and features T-shirts, tote bags, bandanas and socks “by” Jenny Holzer, Jackson Pollock and Mark Dion. Raf Simons, fashion designer, has created a collection that features Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. Stella McCartney used George Stubbs’ Horse Frightened By a Lion as a source of inspiration. Nan Goldin was also a recent collaborator of Supreme.
The most outrageous hook-up is between Jeff Koons, Louis Vuitton. This collaboration has produced a series of sultry handbags, rucksacks, and totes with works by the old masters printed on them. Gold lettering spells out their names: Gauguin, Degas and Monet. According to a senior figure in luxury fashion, Koons’ fee would have reached “well into millions.” It costs at most hundreds of thousands of dollars for living artists to collaborate on such projects. Both parties are involved in a major commercial venture. Both parties wouldn’t want to be seen selling out. You’re just buying a service, and then putting it on a piece.
It is why there are so many of them. It is a commercial need. You hear about the sales numbers from last year. It’s very easy to improve on what has been done before. What can we do now? Many of these collaborations are born out of the need to try something new, spark a new idea or vision.
Business has not been slow to catch on. Artestar is a global agency set up to connect high-profile artists with brands. They have worked with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mapplethorpe, as well as Ai Weiwei. After deals with Coach, Forever 21 and Uniqlo, Haring’s work has been a fixture on the high-street. Does this dilute the original work? Brand strategist Alex de Ronde says, “It’s something we hear all of the time.” “But I believe both Basquiat & Haring would be happy. Both were artists for whom it was important to have their work seen.”
Haring was Warhol’s prodigal son, whereas Warhol was the pioneer. His Pop Shop in Manhattan was established in 1986 and sold everything, from prints to keyrings to badges. There is a distinction when an artist has died and it is up to the estate to make those decisions. De Ronde claims that royalties for high street apparel are between 4-6% and 5%, but the figures he deals with are vastly larger than museums gift shops.
He says, “We don’t do low volumes for Haring and Basquiat. We like to see things in the thousands. However, if you take a look at our work, it’s very tasteful in comparison to other brands and companies like the Disneys of this world.” He claims that the custodians for the artists approve. His sister runs the Basquiat estate. Haring’s studio has been managed by the studio manager who he worked with all his life. They are able to discern his wishes.”
Artestar’s Haring collaborations with Basquiat and Artestar were enough to convince Ai Weiwei to sign up. De Ronde says that “he was very inspired” by these artists. It’s all about messaging for De Ronde. He is very active in social and political activism. It is an amazing opportunity for him to collaborate with Uniqlo which sells millions of T shirts per year.
What happens if it doesn’t work out? A recent example of artist branding ruining a reputation is the Frida Kahlo Barbie. Her neatly drawn eyebrows, light eyes and bright eyes caused consternation in her family. And would Francis Bacon have agreed to his painting Fury appearing on a soft cushion? There’s one on his website. De Ronde says that it is crucial to have people behind-the scenes who are strategic about who they are partnering with and making sure the product meets a certain standard.
Kit Grover, a product designer, saw the Tate Modern opening in 2000 as a chance to open a museum shop that would sell inexpensive merchandise. This was different from the traditional method of getting a photograph of someone’s work and then putting it on a piece and selling it. He says that artists were not consulted at that time and that if they were it was a done deal that they weren’t involved.
He says that some artists bring in designs already planned out. Grayson Perry, for instance, has an opinion on every aspect of the project, even an enamel badge. Grover’s work has a fun and accessible quality. Many of the pieces that he has worked on have become collectibles. For example, an eBay seller is selling a Gilbert and George moveable toy.
Grover believes museums aren’t taking enough risks. He thinks merchandise could be more interesting and in line with artists’ messages. He says, “But maybe I am pretentious.” “Maybe I shouldn’t be concerned about slapping someone’s work on magnets. You wouldn’t be cynical if you said that people love art and don’t care about what you do to it. They love Frida, they see Frida, and they don’t care what you do to Frida, because it’s still Frida.”