You could, if you were fanatical about such things, live your entire life kitted out in your favourite artists. You could wake up and remove your Louise Bourgeois eye mask, take a swig from your Damien Hirst coffee cup, then you check your Ai Weiwei-covered phone before pulling on your Van Gogh leggings. Tea sets, tote bags, dinner trays, model figures, swear boxes, snow globes and even room spray: artist merchandise has moved far beyond the kitsch of Mona Lisa tea towels. It’s now a burgeoning industry that straddles high art, high fashion and the high street.
“Museum shops are getting bigger and more museums are getting shops,” says Victoria Hooper, head of copyright licensing at DACs, a not-for-profit organisation that negotiates royalties for artists whose work is reused. With arts organisations having their funding cut, she says, “everyone in the sector is looking at different ways to monetise”.
For artists, of course, merchandising work is nothing new. “Warhol was the beginning of it,” says Rosey Blackmore, merchandise director at Tate. “He was very interested in the way art could reflect the everyday. Many artists can see that merchandise is a very democratic way of getting their work out into the world.” For those without a spare £2.5m to buy Tracey Emin’s My Bed, a £12 Tracey eggcup is a good way of feeling as if we own a piece of her oeuvre.
But how much can artists and galleries make? Tate Enterprises – which covers its shop, cafe and publishing wing – brought in £2.8m in profit in the 2016-17 financial year. The best seller, Blackmore says, is easily the £85 Grayson Perry scarf designed for Tate Modern, in which he refers to the gallery as Tat Moderne. Other hits include a £15 Damien Hirst teacup and saucer, and more recently a £4 Guerrilla Girls air freshener that promises to “eliminate the stench of patriarchy”.
“Who would have thought that an air freshener would have been an appropriate thing to have in a museum shop?” says Blackmore. “But it’s completely consistent with the Guerrilla Girls’ message.” Has anyone ever refused to do merchandise? “Of course – and we totally respect that. When we did the Matisse exhibition a few years ago, his estate were very straight with us. They would only give us permission to reproduce his works on paper. During his lifetime, Matisse wasn’t interested in applied arts, so the family feel it’s not true to his memory.”
If Matisse were alive today, he may think differently. The last few decades, says the art critic Louisa Buck, have seen the emergence of “artist as brand”. “It’s often artists who have a celebrity-style profile who branch into branded goods,” she says. “We live in a market-based world where people want to consume and artists want their work to engage with the world. So they are making more objects to enter the market at all levels.”
Hirst, she says, “really is the past master of this”. His series of shops, Other Criteria, was set up to house his expanding merchandise. Fans could shop for hand-signed toilet paper, iron-on polka dots, T-shirts and tote bags. Another key figure is the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, whose work synthesises fine art and pop culture. “He had a pop-up Louis Vuitton store at his show in LA,” says Buck. Emin, too, has a separate merchandise business online, as does David Shrigley.
Hooper says artists typically pocket 5-10% of the retail price. “Not a huge money-maker,” she admits. The real money is in working with brands. “The more high-end you go, the more collaborations you see with artists. I suspect that’s a very 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. The fashion designer Raf Simons has produced a collection using the work of Robert Mapplethorpe; Stella McCartney has utilised George Stubbs’ painting Horse Frightened by a Lion; and Supreme recently collaborated with Nan Goldin.
Perhaps the most brazen hook-up is Jeff Koons and Louis Vuitton, a collaboration that has resulted in a lurid series of handbags rucksacks and totes, with the works of the old masters printed on them and gold lettering spelling out their names: Monet, Degas, Gauguin. One senior figure in the luxury fashion industry says Koons’ fee would have been “well into the millions. For living artists to do those collaborations, it’s at least hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a big commercial venture for both parties. I don’t think either would want to be seen as selling out. But at the end of the day, you’re buying a service and sticking it on a piece of clothing.”
Why is there so much of it about? “It comes out of a commercial need – from the people screaming last year’s sales results at you. There’s so much pressure to better what’s been done in the past – what can we do next? A lot of these collaborations come out of a need to do something new, to spark a new idea and a new vision.”
Business has not been slow to catch on. Artestar is a global agency set up to connect high-profile artists with brands. Their clients include the estates of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mapplethorpe and, more recently, Ai Weiwei. Their “brand positioning” of Haring has seen his work become a staple on the high street after deals with Forever 21, Uniqlo and Coach. Is this diluting the original work? “It’s a criticism we hear all the time,” says brand strategist Alex de Ronde. “But I think both Basquiat and Haring would have been happy. Both were people for whom having their artwork seen was very important.”
If Warhol was the pioneer, Haring was his prodigal son. His Pop Shop, set up in 1986 in Manhattan, was dedicated to selling everything from prints to badges and keyrings. But there is a difference, of course, when an artist is dead and it’s up to their estate to make decisions. De Ronde says royalties for high-street apparel are 4-6% but, unlike museum gift shops, the numbers he deals in are huge.
“We don’t do low volume for Haring or Basquiat,” he says. “We like to see things in the thousands. But if you look at what we’ve done, it’s quite tasteful compared to other companies and brands like the Disneys of the world.” He says the artists’ custodians approve. “The Basquiat estate is run by his sister. Haring’s studio is run by the studio manager he had throughout his life. They know what his wishes would have been.”
Ai Weiwei was sufficiently impressed by Artestar’s Haring and Basquiat collaborations to sign up. “He was very inspired by those artists,” says De Ronde. “But for him, it’s really about messaging. He does so much political and social activism. For him to do a collaboration with a mass retailer like Uniqlo, which sells millions of T-shirts a year, is a great opportunity to reach people.”
But what about when it goes wrong? The Frida Kahlo Barbie – whose neatly drawn eyebrows and light eyes caused consternation among her family – is a recent example of branding sullying an artist’s reputation. And would Francis Bacon have agreed to his painting Fury appearing on a soft cushion? There’s one on his website. “You have to have people behind the scenes being strategic over who they are partnering,” says De Ronde, “and making sure the product is up to a certain standard.”
When Tate Modern opened in 2000, the product designer Kit Grover saw a place for a new kind of museum shop to sell affordable merchandise that would “represent artists and their ideas – rather than the traditional way, which was to get a picture of someone’s work, put it on a thing and sell it”. At that time, he says, “the artists weren’t really consulted and, if they were, it was kind of a done deal that they weren’t involved”.
Now, he says, some artists come in with designs already laid out. Grayson Perry, for example, “has an opinion on everything, right down to an enamel badge”. Grover’s work is fun and accessible: many of the pieces he’s worked on have become collectors items. A moveable toy of Gilbert and George, for example, is now selling on eBay.
Grover thinks museums don’t take enough risks: merchandise could be more exciting – and more in keeping with the artists’ message. “But maybe I’m pretentious,” he says. “Maybe I shouldn’t worry about slapping somebody’s work on a magnet. If you were not being cynical, you would say that people just love art and they’re not precious about what you do with it. They see Frida Kahlo, they love Frida Kahlo, and they don’t care what you do to her – because it’s still Frida Kahlo.”
- This article was amended on 25 June 2018 to correct the spelling of Frida Kahlo.
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