The work of famous artists is recreated in many forms: postcards, placemats, scarves, tea towels – and now, in a more contemporary twist, stretch leggings. If you’re a fan of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, or even Bosschaert the Elder’s A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase, you can now stride out, colourfully adorned in one of the world’s greatest paintings.
The leggings are the result of a collaboration between the National Gallery, where all three canvases hang, and specialist designer-manufacturers Wild Bangarang. The company also makes a range of much sought-after World of Warcraft clothing, in partnership with the game’s original artists.
“The National Gallery came to us,” says David Pearson, co-founder of Wild Bangarang. An agency specialising in licensing had been taken on by the gallery, he explains, which wanted to explore ways innovative products could be used to bring the National Gallery’s collection to new audiences.
It has been a lengthy process that has cost time and money. Wild Bangarang cannot simply copy a picture on to fabric, it will specifically commission illustrators to redraw the art so that the image works perfectly in its new incarnation as clothing. They’ve also spent significant time with the National Gallery’s buyer – a whole day was spent at their printing works “printing and printing again until we got the colours absolutely right,” Pearson says. The leggings will be in the gallery shop from December.
So how can other small business owners attract the notice of the UK’s galleries?
“Products happen in a lot of different ways” says Rosey Blackmore, merchandise director for Tate Enterprises, which oversees the Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives. She explains that the gallery won’t always make use of art they already have hanging on the walls, but will often commission artists to create something bespoke. “Sometimes we have a specific idea of what we think we need, so then I’ll give a very prescriptive brief, but that’s not always the case.
“Later today I’m going to the Royal College of Art to give students a broad brief asking them what would delight them if it was in our shops. And a product will materialise from that. Personally I really love the projects where we give emerging creatives the opportunity and we together create something that’s wonderful for us to have in the shop and very precious to them to have in their portfolio.”
Michelle Cassell, the artist behind the label Eat, Pray, Pedal was approached out of the blue by the Royal Academy (RA) earlier this year. A buyer from the gallery’s RAted Range (the RA’s showcase for emerging British design talent) contacted her via Etsy, where she had a listing to sell her work. She wanted to stock Cassell’s handpainted Christmas baubles to complement the gallery’s forthcoming exhibition on abstract expressionism.
Cassell had only sold two of them at a craft market to date, so she wasn’t quite sure whether to believe what she was hearing. And while she is thrilled at the opportunity, selling wholesale to a gallery has been a steep learning curve. “There were months of conversations,” she says . “I’d go six weeks and hear nothing – of course she had to go to meetings her end and pitch to the senior buyers.”
Making it commercially viable
It’s undoubtedly an exciting proposition for an emerging artist, but does it represent a worthwhile business opportunity?
Cassell’s deal was finally signed in August and she is now combining a part-job with painting hundreds of baubles. “It has taken a lot of perseverance to get to this point,” she says. “I’d love to just sit and paint, but I had to learn about wholesale and really think about it from a business perspective.” Galleries, she adds, take a higher margin than other stockists so you have to be prepared to negotiate.
Each relationship is different, says Ella Riley, senior buyer at the Royal Academy. “Some artists will ask for royalty for a product. It is typically quite minimal, but those products that do well can be in the shop for a number of years.” Or the gallery might offer them product in kind (depending on what the artist has designed).
Different artists will also bring their own individual approach to a piece of merchandise, Riley explains. “Ai Wei Wei wanted products that were really affordable and accessible” – (his pieces in the RA shop range from a £15 iPhone cover to a £14,000 ceramic chrysanthemum) – “whereas others might want to create something very high-end, and limited edition or numbered”.
At the Tate, Blackmore says that when the gallery itself creates a product based on a commissioned design, a standard royalty is offered to all artists, no matter how high their profile. Alternatively, she says, artists with strong links to manufacturers and who want to oversee the entire production process may prefer to supply a finished product to the gallery themselves, and make their cut on that basis.
Even in the midst of the excitement of being approached by a world famous gallery, however, Pearson warns that if this type of collaboration is to be a fruitful business prospect, it is vital “to slow everything down and make sure you understand every clause in the contract”. That may not come easy to creatives, but nobody wants to be starving in a garret, while somebody else makes money from your art in a gallery shop.
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