In February 2022, twenty-six year artist Uzo Njoku tweeted that a professor from her MFA program told her that a “true artist” didn’t create products with artwork for the public. Njoku had begun her art career in 2018 while she was a student at the University of Virginia. She illustrated and self-published a coloring book about different types of women and sold it online to customers from around the world. The Nigerian born and American raised artist subsequently registered her business and began selling $20.00 prints of her art through her website.
In 2020 before she had officially entered the New York Academy of Art, Njoku had already had a solo exhibit at the Voltz Clarke Gallery in New York and had collaborated with Yves Saint Laurent. Yves Saint Laurent approached Njoku for a project for their “influencers” based on work she had shown on Instagram. Njoku stated that in 2020 her art business generated nearly seven figures in revenue. Recently, she received an $80,000 private commission for three works. Additionally she lectures about her career at colleges.
Njoku continues to sell inexpensive prints as well as apparel and products such as yoga mats, mugs, cell phone cases and totes bags with her artwork on them through her website. Njoku isn’t the only successful artist building a brand, she however is just more transparent than others about her intentions.
In December 2021 Presidential portrait artist, Kehinde Wiley opened an online store that sells limited edition apparel and merchandise ranging from $30.00 to $25,000 with compositions from his archive. The proceeds from sales support Black Rock Senegal, the multidisciplinary artist-in-residence program he created in Dakar, Senegal.
Additionally, Wiley and artist Julie Mehretu partnered with American Express and each created a credit card design for the company’s Platinum members.
Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, whose paintings have sold for between $52,500 to $3,423,258 at auctions, collaborated with Dior Men’s on their 2021 summer collection, “A Portrait Of An Artist.” The popular yellow cashmere turtleneck sweater with a rendering of Boafo’s art on it sold for $3,300. Kim Jones, Creative Director for Dior Men’s had previously partnered with artists, Brian Donnelly known professionally as Kaws and Hajime Sorayama.
In art circles, the argument has always been that creating lower priced products that included images of an artist’s paintings diminishes the value of the original works however it’s a specious position. Blue chip luxury goods companies have consistently created ways to expand their consumer base by creating less expensive products with no adverse effects.
A woman may not be able to afford an $80,000 dress by Haute Couture Chanel however, she can partake in the Chanel experience by purchasing a $24.00 lipstick or a $150.00 bottle of perfume. Similarly, a man who can’t buy a $40,000 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona can still floss at the office with his $6,000 Rolex Oyster Perpetual.
What makes the business model any different for an artist?
Njoku said that she sold her original work, “Good Times” (2021) for $12,000 then she made another $18,000 on the prints of the work. She discontinued selling the print in February, 2022. A significant and overlooked point is that by offering low cost prints Njoku not only created another revenue stream for herself but she also provided people of modest means the opportunity to enjoy her vibrant artworks.
The irony is that for years unheralded artists have been selling inexpensive consumer products bearing images of their work to make ends meet. There’s also been no outrage over t-shirts bearing the image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or the millions of posters of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
The only reason for the clutching of pearls is that now artists who are rising stars in the art world are selling their own products, prints and apparel. Similar to Njoku, artists such Jewel Ham, Robert Peterson and B. Robert Moore have also been vocal and intentional about creating diverse and affordable ways that the public, particularly Black people can access their artwork.
Uzo Njoku “Good Times” (2021)
“The word ‘art’ is something that the West has never understood. Art is supposed to be part of the community…Art is to decorate people’s houses, their skin, their clothes, to make them expand their minds, and it’s supposed to be right in the community…” —Playwright, activist and poet, Amiri Baraka
The idea that a “true artist” can’t create a brand is more rooted in elitism than in artistic integrity. It is the logic of an old order who still view art as the purview of wealthy and mostly White collectors. It’s premised on the belief that “real art” should be cloistered in pristine museums or galleries away from the unwashed masses. Using this framework, the opposite of a “true artist” is a “commercial artist.” The term “commercial art” is typically used as a pejorative to describe realistic work that is embraced by the public. However, all commercial art isn’t kitsch.
Commercial art is frequently disdained because it doesn’t prioritize scarcity and therefore is widely available.
In many cases the art deemed “commercial” are quality works that reflect the experiences of everyday people. The images also become popular without any validation from the art establishment. This has been the case for scores of African American artists, including Annie Lee, who was promoted by national radio personality Tom Joyner.
Annie Lee (1935-2014) is best known for her work, “Blue Monday” which has also been mass produced. The work depicts a woman struggling to pull herself out of bed on a Monday morning. When people look at the image they often exclaim, “That’s me!” The painting was inspired by Lee’s day job as a railway clerk. The hallmark of Lee’s work are her featureless subjects. She’s quoted as saying, “You don’t need to see a face to understand emotion.”
Lee had her first gallery show at age 50 and sold her paintings for between $4,000 and $20,000. Her paintings were featured in television shows and movies such as, “A Different World”, “227,” “Coming to America,” “Boomerang,” and “Barber Shop.” In 1990 Lee opened a gallery and she also developed a line of figurines, dolls, decorative kitchen tiles and home décor items from her paintings that gave people, on any budget, an opportunity to own a Annie Lee work.
Whether it’s putting their artwork on a $3,000 sweater or on a $30.00 cell phone case, high profile artists who are branding themselves are now blurring the lines between “commercial art” and “fine art.”
Personal branding isn’t some newfangled idea created by Generation Z.
In August,1997 the business magazine, Fast Company published the article, “The Brand Called You” that showed professionals step-by-step how to create a personal brand as a way to effectively leverage their talents and skills in a “free agent” economy. The article advised professionals that instead of tethering their entire careers (and incomes) to one company, they should develop a portfolio of their work and a reputation that they could market to continually obtain better or more lucrative positions.
One could credibly argue that a wide range of visual artists including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol employed the concepts of personal branding to advance their artistic careers. What is radically different today is that younger artists grew up using social media and they understand the power of having their own brands and their own audiences that they can market their art and products to.
This seismic power shift has been particularly apparent during the 2-½ years of the global pandemic.
With the shut downs of museums and galleries, artists used online platforms to show their work to art to potential buyers worldwide. Anecdotal evidence suggests that during this period there were many first time art buyers. In the comfort of their homes they discovered artists as they scrolled through Instagram or Facebook. Most germane is that the artists who presented their art online established its value and not a New York art critic.
By creating a strong brand with an online presence, an artist is no longer beholden financially or professionally to a gallery or to a coterie of collectors. While the artist’s gallery or dealer may handle the sales of their original work, the artist has the ability to develop additional revenue streams that she controls.
The dirty secret is that the majority of artists cannot survive by selling their art.
Like their predecessors, most artists still supplement their incomes with teaching positions at universities or with other full-time employment. Practical matters such as having money to pay the rent on their apartments and studios, as well as to buy food, health insurance and art supplies are relevant to their ability to create new work.
Njoku says that her commercial products gave her the financial freedom to create new paintings.
It can take an artist several months to finish a work that then sells for $5,000-$10,000, often months later. Then he will have to pay a percentage of the proceeds to his gallery. Even if an artist is selling works for $15,000- $25,000 he would have to crank out and sell three or more works each year to make an adequate income.
When people sneer at self-promotion or opine about crass commercialism it’s often from a place of privilege. It’s easy for well-established artists to say that branding is gauche and that “the work should speak for itself” when through their personal networks and/or prestigious galleries they have access to monied collectors as well as influential publicists, art writers, residencies and art exhibitions throughout the world. The majority of artists however are not in this rarefied environment.
The bottom line is most artists should invest the time and resources to brand themselves not only to promote their work to potential clients but also to develop revenue sources that they own and control.
Let’s not get it twisted. There will always be a high level of prestige attached to owning an original work or a reproduction from a very limited edition by an “important” artist. No collector cares about an image on a note card or on a ceramic mug when she owns the actual painting. In an increasingly decentralized art landscape what is at stake is who gets to decide which artists are “important” and who then gets to profit from those selections.
Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a former attorney, cultural critic and author of several books.
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