Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Branding for the Fine Artist : Part I

UPDATE NOTE: A good number of people have noted on social media and elsewhere that they didn't realize the post below is satirical. I've left it up untouched for a few days anyway, believing that straight-faced satire works best when the reader is unsure how serious the author is, but now, rather than have anyone ever cite this post as evidence that I had advocated self-branding as a career move for fine artists, I think it's now time to make clear I conceived of this post as a scathing satire. After the first two paragraphs, I would never offer the advice that follows. I honestly thought that would be obvious to more people. Perhaps my satire skills need some sharpening. Moreover, though, such responses have clarified for me that there's a true sea-change in perception about such issues and what I meant to make readers gasp and then hopefully laugh about is actually something many apparently embrace. I'll be giving all that some additional thought.


Frequently art dealers are frustrated at how MFA programs often fail to prepare their graduates for the real art world of today, neglecting to instruct them in the most basic business realities of the primary art market. Consignment agreements, commission splits, representation contracts, and so on; these fundamental art business principles and practices often catch young artists by surprise, leading to needless misunderstandings, feelings of being taken advantage of, and, in worst case scenarios, a lasting mistrust of the art market in general. 

To combat such mistrust, I have advocated, upon nearly every given opportunity, for at least one course on the business side of the art world to become mandatory for both BFA and MFA programs, so that, once fully prepared, newly minted art stars are able to focus on their studio practice and not waste time anonymously trolling the art blogs and social media, hurling aspersions at the entire gallery world, just to learn that a 50% split is, in fact, as their new dealer had tried to tell them, the standard across the industry. Indeed, it has been an ongoing mission of this very blog to help demystify the workings of the gallery world, as a service to both artists and dealers, knowing that a shared awareness of the common practices reduces the otherwise commonly reached assumptions that one or other of the two is the demon spawn of Bernie Maddoff and Leona Helmsley.

Lately, however, as the art market has become increasingly global, lucrative, and hence more sophisticatedly manipulated, I've begun to realize that business basics alone are not sufficient instruction for helping BFA and MFA graduates be fully prepared for the market that awaits them. No, to enter the new art world armed with the knowledge that will make you truly successful, artists must acquire a more sophisticated understanding of the science of branding.

And so, as part of this blog's ongoing mission to educate and illuminate, I will attempt to offer a series of humble primers on "Branding for the Fine Artist." Part I of the series outlines the hierarchical levels of successful branding for artists, as shown in this chart:

This framework actually includes a few perhaps surprising realities about artist branding. Indeed, given all the mainstream press attention it receives, the causal student of artist branding could be forgiven for believing that "brand awareness" is the pinnacle of art world branding achievement. Having collectors, curators, and critics recognize your name (or possibly even buy, curate, or review your artwork) is often mistaken for having "made it" in the new art world. The fact is, however, that "brand awareness" is the lowest level of successful artist branding. 

You may be thinking that "brand awareness" is still good enough for you, but as you progress up the ladder of successful branding, you'll find that "success" not only comes more easily to those who have achieved the highest level of branding, it's all but entirely taken care of for you.

Moreover, "brand awareness" could just as likely equal a negative view as it might a positive view of your work. Simply knowing your name or buying your work doesn't necessarily mean those who are aware of you associate good things with your name. Perhaps they bring home a work from a fair to then discover your name has made it into the "Liquidate" column on ArtRank. Perhaps on the way to buy your work at an auction, they read a HuffPo article by a respected conservator who singled out your Play-Doh-on-canvas abstractions as an example of high-maintenance (i.e., expensive) art to preserve, giving your works, in their professional and trusted opinion, at most a 10-month shelf-life. Mind you, most of the thousands of new MFAs pouring out of art schools each year would give a private body part to ever achieve even "brand awareness," but though most of us are standing in the gutter, those destined for greatness are looking to the stars.

And so, the next level of branding that fine artists should understand is "brand preference," which indicates that you're viewed positively enough that you will likely get repeat purchases or opportunities via curators, or decent reviews, which of course is good, but there's not yet any loyalty toward your brand among your "consumers." If your work is available, they'll go for it, but they won't lose any sleep if it's not. A collector, for example, may want one of Jeff Koons' polished stainless steal balloon "Rabbit"s, but as there are currently none for sale (in his price range...there is always one for sale), he's just as happy to purchase artwork by another artist who works with mirrored or really shiny surfaces, just so long as he can see his own reflection in it. 

In other words, consumers are still somewhat ambivalent at the "brand preference" level. They like you...they're just not willing to go too far out of their way or, God forbid, wait for you.

That all changes in the third level: "brand loyalty." This is often as high as most artists can truly hope to climb, but that's OK...this is a great level to be operating on. At the "brand loyalty" level, your consumers will not only prefer you, but insist on you. They will only buy, curate, or write (with any passion) about you. Even if there's another artists making similar work that might be confused for yours at the gallery down the street...even if that other work is significantly less expensive, more archival, less potentially litigious, or has no existentially offensive waiting list, they will still flock to your work with their notepads or wallets open.

Mind you, as any branding expert will tell you, sometimes what seems like "brand loyalty" is actually just inertia. This may manifest itself in the form of a visceral inability on the part of your consumers to suck up to yet another artist's new art dealer. Or perhaps it means that artist with the exhibition down the street has a foreign name consumers are too embarrassed to try to pronounce. Or it doesn't matter that the artist down the street actually perfected the process you work in and it's hard to imagine you didn't study them for some time, and everyone who knows anything knows it, even if they're not willing to write it or argue it in front of their purchasing committees because eveyone also knows that the artist down the street is stuck in some lower branding level for reasons not even God understands. 

Normally, though, artists who reach the "brand loyalty" level do so because consumers truly like and trust them. And so, they'll happily suffer the gallery associate sales director, whose annual salary wouldn't equal their monthly "social media life coach" budget, haughtily sighing "there's a waiting list," just so long as they're reassured they'll get to buy one of your pieces one day. 

But even loyalty pales in comparsion with the most successful level of branding: "brand advocacy." This is where your consumers are not only willing to wait for your work, but they'll proselytize for you to anyone who will listen. It's obvious how selflessly they work to promote you. They rave about your work and tell other collectors they should buy it too, perhaps even one of theirs. And not only other collectors. No, once they're "advocates," they'll recruit others to become true believers...especially those they view as one would an "apprentice," like curators at museums they're trustees of or younger dealers for whom that one purchase they "might" make is the difference between eating actual meat or eating Alpo. The power of "brand advocacy" extends into every bright corner of the art market, even the auction houses, where experts on art that's barely been reviewed manage to wrangle contemporary masterworks from unopened crates, still doning "Miami" address labels, residing in the storage units of the sincerest of brand advocates on a semi-annual basis. This, dear fine artist, is the prize you must keep your eyes on.

In Part II of this series, we'll explore how fine artists should go about scaling this pyramid of branding levels.


Blogger waynestead said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/22/2014 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous GAMcCullough said...

Thanks Ed,

To strive towards meriting the advocay levl:

To quote S Godin:
What we choose to do next, though, how to spend our resources or attention or effort, this is what defines us.

all this 'extra' stuff when I want simply prefer to paint ....I guess thats the typical grumbling when the personal is placed in the public sphere.

again thanks for your thoughts Ed.

5/23/2014 09:54:00 AM  
Anonymous J.V. said...

Edward: Is this post in earnest? No offense intended. The post certainly sounds sincere and thoughtful. (And worth waiting for the rest). But on the other hand, it seems like an oil-and-water proposition to ask artists to apply business practices (especially marketing) to their own.

5/23/2014 05:36:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

JV...the post is meant to be a satire...biting even. Actually, it's meant to be scathing. And I'm finding it rather disturbing that dome folks are taking it seriously. Probably a generational thing, but this kind of text would have been horrifying to artists when I was in school. I'm serious about the first two paragraph, but definitely mean what comes after that to be funny and not at all serious.

5/23/2014 05:43:00 PM  
Anonymous J.V. said...

But I think the joke backfired.

You have, even if in jest, put your finger on exactly how an artist's popularity works. How does an artist build a following except by networking? How does an artist succeed except by gaining followers and advocates?

Instead of making marketing brochures, artists make portfolios and websites. Instead of sales calls, they press the flesh at exhibitions. Instead of market segmentation, they specialize in their own specific niche. Instead of having conventions or in-home demonstrations, they have parties and go out to bars. Same difference.

And don't get me started about art fairs. When I was in industry, I went to exactly the same venues that now hold art fairs, and saw exactly the same cubicles, and the same sales techniques. So if you were joking, I think you inadvertently launched a boomerang instead.

It's all exactly the same concepts, whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not.

I have come to realize that the art world is exactly like the business world, except that artists are awful business people.

And those artists who are actually good business people keep their mouth shut, or cover their business acumen with enough art-waffle that people are tricked into thinking that they're not actually being calculating. (And artworlders are easily tricked, because they're all extreme wishful-thinkers).

Also, coming to art later in life, without an MFA, without a network forged from 6 years of living in dorms and going to bars, I'm now in a position to start pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. You think a gallery is going to take a 40-something artist who doesn't already have a network?

And, sorry to say, the things I'm noticing about the artworld are the same things I noticed about the business world, except one thing. There are two types of artists. Those who are naive, and those who are lying. Today you inadvertently crossed the streams. Sorry for the long comment.

5/23/2014 06:21:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

I'm glad I didn't express my strong feelings in ugly thoughts online.

A decade of online conversations has taught me that karma is swift on the internet and one has to encounter and relive for the unforeseeable future one's bratty fits and petulance. So it is best to bite one's tongue. It comes with age.

The most diplomatic comment I could muster was going to be:

"Is this post written by the same person who wrote the following just a week ago?"

""Essentially, there is no longer any point in feigning disgust. We have grown so accustomed to the bodies of work by artists we admire being reduced to mere commodities in this market that any incipient horror has now evaporated.""

Having followed your blog for years but not knowing you personally, I just assumed you were suffering from a split personality, or worse, and were too nuts to even try to reason with.

One more comment from the peanut gallery: Someone coming to your blog for the first time and reading this might be motivated, with good reason, to drive a stake through your heart while you are out for a pleasant evening stroll. Since it is not inconceivable a dealer could write this, it is not apparent it is written with a "scathing" or condemning tone.

I would erase it ... or add some kind of a disclaimer. Your life could be at risk.

5/23/2014 07:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my take , a bluechip galllerys guide on how to make a art super star. Hire young attractive actor male or female to play the Artist. hire talented artists designers, architects curators ect to make the art Confidentiality agreements all around.

Then you are going to need a advertising company and pr firm to pump said artist . they must be invited to all the parties and red carpet events . be in all the newspapers online art mags ect.

And in a few years you have a crossover Art superstar who the American public will know by name and sell for millions.

And the Artist can only go by one name . You know like Madonna, cher bono, lourd , sting.

I makes it so much easier.

5/24/2014 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

You can’t satirize yourself, Ed. That’s why this doesn’t work.

As a dealer in NYC and part of the industry, you are, like it not - I know your heart is in the right place - one of “them” - part of the machine that would generate this type of pro-commerce and anti-art bullshit.

Only an artist can legitimately satirize the bourgeois blockheadedness, ignorant buffoonery, and bureaucratic red tape of the art industry.

Those are the rules of comedy. The powerless and downtrodden lampoon the out-of-touch and powerful elite - those who have the power to lift them up or crush them.

You writing this post is a little like George Steinbrenner picketing Yankee Stadium along side the players union demanding a pay increase for his players.

That’s why it backfires.

There is an old saying: “Power is like a monkey climbing a flagpole. The higher he goes, the more ass you see.”

This is the way its done:

5/25/2014 03:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

"You can’t satirize yourself, Ed"

Not sure that's true, actually, but even it is, I'm not exactly "the gallery world" in and of myself and the industry has a wide range of participants with a wide range of beliefs about how it's done. More than that, though, I'm a blogger with a long history of arguing against excesses in the market, and in particular against the type of dealing that favors money over art itself.

My point being, I entirely reject that any one who deals in art owns the excesses of the entire industry, just as I reject that all artists own the excesses of the worst artists, or all collectors own the excesses of the worst flippers, etc. etc.

5/26/2014 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

"You can’t satirize yourself, Ed"

I’m not sure if that’s entirely true myself, but it served to help introduce the point.

Which was if your post had been written by an artist, and trumped up a little more sardonically a la the SNL skits, there would have been no confusion about its intent. But since it was presented by someone in the “business” - and you have referred to having a gallery as a business time and again (I’ve read your book BTW) - it seems to follow very naturally that it could conceivably be an extension of that business approach to marketing art in the art industry, and just another attempt at counseling artists by industry insiders on how they “should” further hone their “professional skills” and conduct themselves in the business world.

I think it’s a tautological statement to say that if artists wanted to get into the business world then that’s what they would have done to begin with. No right minded person with any business acumen practices art to be a business success. Just imagine for a moment all of this art industry guidance being directed to poets. The ludicrousness of it would be more apparent.

I agree with everything else you’ve said. And you are right to get feisty about it. You have certainly demonstrated over and over again your principled stance. Which is why I wrote “your heart is in the right place.”

Unfortunately for you - and me, too, since I sell art but do not consider myself at all to be running a business - you are part of the industry in general, just like a morally upright banker who has a strong religious foundation and humanitarian sensibilities will be swept up in the Occupy Wall Street movement whether he deserves to be or not, or a doctor who prides himself on being a healer more than having a lucrative practice will get caught up in the anger over the abuses of the medical industry and be targeted unfairly.

It is very tough to walk the razor’s edge that separates 1. activities whose motives are not fueled by money 2. when they are offered in exchange for money in a marketplace setting. Motives get murky. And money has a tendency to pull everything it comes into contact with out of its natural orbit and yank it hell-ward.

All I can say is it takes an extreme degree of vigilance on the part of everyone in the arts, who truly cares about the arts, to work together to ensure that what is most valuable about art - that like life itself it cannot rationally be commodified and assigned a number value, and therefore turned into a product manufactured for profit - does not get pulled hell-ward.

I think you’re fighting the good fight. I wish there were more of us.

5/26/2014 03:44:00 PM  
Anonymous tituschao said...

Hi Ed, you are a good writer. I think the main reason this post did not succeed in being self-evidently satirical is that you do not normally write in that type of hyperbolic or cynical tone that satire usually requires. And because of the huge presence of this type of articles on the Internet that give tips on things like "how to make it in the art world", most of which people actually read and yet whose superficiality can unfortunately only be recognized by few more sophisticated readers, your post actually has the appearance of being very informative, useful, valuable, however you want to describe it, advice in this category, given the language you use, your credentials and everything. "Hey we finally have tips from an insider!" All I'm saying is that it's matter of language, which you already point out in your added note, so I guess I'm just saying hi here lol.

You remind me of something I read the other day about the film industry that is really funny.
Maybe the titles for the upcoming posts in this series could be something like "10 steps to getting EVERYONE in the art world know your name!"

5/27/2014 12:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Making art work is boring there are some great fleeting moments thou. ah the sale the sale is better then sex .


You have to have a game plan and strategy artist.

You are at war artist, with every other artist Dead or aLive and gallery in the world.

There is X number of dollars to be spent every year on ART.

your Job is to take Market share from LARRY GAGOSIAN or join his Mecenary Army !!!!!!!!!!!!

5/27/2014 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Even within the most competitive/business-minded context I believe is appropriate, the "job" of an artist is, as I noted on this topic on Facebook paraphrasing Steve Jobs, first and foremost to "give the people something they don't (yet) know they will treasure."

The "treasure" aspect is critical and being lost in all this talk of making money (by artists, collectors or dealers). The "treasure" aspect is the only reason fine art is a viable financial vehicle. If society stops treasuring the art in museums and such, its ability to retain value will plummet.

Any other way of looking at it is a ponzi scheme.

5/27/2014 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger lee kaloidis said...

“The "job" of an artist is … to give the people something they don't (yet) know they will treasure."

Ed, that is the murkiest job description that has ever been written, IMO. It’s bad enough that it offers absolutely no concrete description for what should actually be done in the present, but then you throw into the mix that whatever it is you do today should be treasured tomorrow or by some future generation.

Besides, elements of that thought are at the very heart of capitalism and you could have paraphrased Marx just as well. “Create demand (where it doesn’t exist) to drive the market.”

I think just the reverse is true for art, though, which is not the same as a brand new Apple product in a consumer marketplace. “Give the people what they already value and have always valued, but deliver it in a fresh and unexpected package.”

I prefer Barnes to Jobs on art issues.

“If society stops treasuring the art in museums and such, its ability to retain value will plummet.”

People “treasure” their pets, and you can get a pretty good pet for about $100 at a shelter. So there is something more than “treasuring” going on here.

Individuals, societies and cultures value and treasure all the following things - just to name a scant few - and none of the “treasuring” (well, maybe some of it) has to do with retaining (financial) value:

The Pyramids, Homer, the Bible, the Parthenon, Plato and the Socratic dialogues, Confucius, Plutarch, The Coliseum, Lao Tzu, Byzantium and early Christian Iconography, Giotto, the highlights of Western Renaissance and its many phases, Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, Descartes, Copernicus, Hume, Kant, Beethoven and Wagner, Poe, Turner and Manet, Dostoevsky, Melville, Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Einstein, Picasso, Kandinsky, Freud, Bartok, Popper … etc, etc.

They also treasure things like Babe Ruth’s shoes, stuffed animals at museums of natural history, stamps and coins, Nazi memorabilia, US Civil War guns and uniforms, Napoleon’s stockings …

You get the point.

It is a grave error to keep coupling human and social value with financial value. There is no machine in the world, nor will there ever be, that can calculate that kind of currency exchange rate. We are more at a risk today of losing “inherent social and human values” that have been with us for millennia to the considerations of “financial value” than we have ever been in history. Which, IMO, is as urgent a crisis for humanity - (screw art, art is small potatoes) - as the potential for an ecological meltdown is to the planet.

Hate to keep harping on the same old theme, but it is a theme that is worthy of continued debate, IMO.

(BTW, I followed that exchange on Facebook. And for what it’s worth, I think what you had to say there was said clearly, explicitly and convincingly. As powerful as anything I have ever seen on your blog. Maybe it’s because it was so impromptu. Wouldn’t hurt to extract it and compile it for either this post or another one. It’s a pretty damn strong mission statement.)

5/27/2014 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

separate out the things you list that we treasure into those that qualify as discrete objects one person could own and those for which that's impractical and you'll find that my definition pretty much holds up:

" Babe Ruth’s shoes, stuffed animals at museums of natural history, stamps and coins, Nazi memorabilia, US Civil War guns and uniforms, Napoleon’s stockings …"

ever check the auction prices for such things?

“Give the people what they already value and have always valued, but deliver it in a fresh and unexpected package.”

It's not that simple...if it were, we'd still treasure all manner of artworks that were wildly popular in their day but that history decided weren't up to snuff.

My definition may be murky compared to actual "job descriptions" but then "paint variously colored spots equally spaced across a white ground" is a job already taken.

My point is that it's not enough for art to come in a "fresh and unexpected package." It must also embody something beyond all that's come before it, that will continue to amaze and delight or confound or inspire generations from now to be a solid financial vehicle that your heirs will be delighted you purchased, long after the freshness of the work wears thin.

You may be right that it must begin with something that people have always and will always treasure (in terms of theme or emotional impact...we are rather limited creatures after all), but inserting such into a work in a truly profound and effective way is not something you can phone in.

And more than that, what about one's own journey. All this chatter about cashing in and getting mine hurts no one as much as the artist who neglected to give their all to their work. The rest of us can ignore their efforts, eventually...but they only get this one shot at contributing something truly meaningful.

5/27/2014 03:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Treasure ... You ever notice the Partrige Family Bus is painted in a brilliant Mondrian Paint Scheme.

How did that happen ? who approved it ? or was it some guerrilla artist who snuck it in and no one ever noticed?

5/27/2014 04:48:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home