Survive in the art world: market the brand, sell the product

Damien Hirst, whose work Virgin Mother III is pictured here, has learned the lessons of personal branding. Suzanne Gerber, CC BY-NC-ND

Artists such as Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, and more recently Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, are regularly held up as masters of self-marketing and as global artist brands. Koons, for example, is feted on the pages of Vanity Fair and a retrospective of his work is on display at the Whitney Museum.

Of course, it could be said that all these artists have been natural self-promoters and that they have not necessarily explicitly used marketing strategies to further their careers. In some ways, though, they do demonstrate that it is possible for visual artists to possess a distinctive and valuable brand. What is more, marketing has never been too far from the artistic world.

Strategies such as patronage (in effect, sponsorship), the creation of distinctive products, “brand extensions” into other genres and media, and the nurturing of exclusivity have been used by many artists over the years.

New skills for artists

In the modern world artists are pushed to market themselves and sell their artistic output.

Some fine art degrees include a professional practice subject, though these usually only include a brief introduction to marketing. There are online resources and self-help programs supported by government arts advisory bodies, though again these can be introductory and generic in nature.

There appears be an assumption that visual artists can, and do, market themselves. But is it so easy?

Personal branding is frequently seen in entertainment and sports where media attention is more easily accessible.

Certainly, within the self-improvement and self-help movement, the concept of branding an individual is well-established. It’s mainly aimed at providing individuals with strategies to improve their business success.

The personal branding phenomenon was almost single-handedly invented by consultant Tom Peters in 1997. Following Peters’ 1997 article The brand called you, a number of others went on to establish self-marketing and personal branding as a trend in popular management and employment consultation.

Art person as product

But, the idea of “person as product” does not sit well in the arts. Many in the arts community are alarmed at the idea of art being “packaged”. Reviewer Peter Timms has been scathing in his assessment of the “branded” artist, gallery and auction house in the contemporary art market.

When is the right time for an artist to develop a personal brand? Would an emerging artist, without commercial gallery representation, be more inclined to embrace marketing strategies? Must they do so in order to move up to the next level in their arts practice?

These days artists require a strong brand narrative to be successful in the market and with their visual skills and creativity, many can successfully develop this in practice. What’s more, the distinction between the artist and his or her art is often blurred, with the creativity of the artist and that contained in the artwork becoming one.

An artist’s motivations to create art are just as varied as his or her individual personalities. What individual artists are seeking to achieve with their practice is an important consideration here. After all, it would be incorrect to assume that all artists are seeking either critical or commercial success.

Still, for those that are, interacting with their audience and their market in some ways is inevitable, and arguably, even just for critical success, necessary.

How to build the right brand?

But, how they do that, and the extent to which they utilise self-marketing, does appear to relate to matters of personality. Artists who do not have the “skill set” required rely on their commercial gallery to be their marketer.

Artists without the skill set and without gallery representation may find themselves without an audience for their work.

So, branding may be potentially useful as a means for the individual visual artist to build an audience for their art, providing they have the personality to make use of it in a strategic way.

Critic Jonathan Schroeder thinks of artists as brand managers who proactively promote themselves as recognisable products in the cultural marketplace. There is merit in viewing a brand as a means of eliciting a consumer response. If art is a commodity, it is therefore affected by market forces and consumer interest.

As such branding is clearly one effective strategy that artists can use to build an audience for their work.

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