Art Market

Superstar Artists Are Marketing Themselves Like Pro Athletes and Musicians

Justin Kamp
Feb 2, 2021 9:20PM
Daniel Arsham
Eroded Basketball, 2020
U Square

When the Cleveland Cavaliers announced last November that Daniel Arsham would be joining the professional basketball franchise as creative director, it seemed a logical—but still surprising—career step for the artist. As a frequent collaborator with a long roster of brands that includes high fashion (Dior), affordable apparel (Uniqlo), and luxury cars (Porsche), it seemed only natural that Arsham would move into a more hands-on branding position, taking on a role whose responsibilities include developing the NBA team’s “visual identity across all aspects of the organization,” ranging from jerseys and court designs to its social media presence. The position is not only a new branch in Arsham’s multi-limbed practice, it’s also indicative of a more active approach to branding that’s increasingly common among contemporary artists.

According to David Stark, founder of the art licensing company Artestar, the proliferation of branding in the art world is a recent phenomenon. “When I started working with Keith Haring in the 1980s, it was relatively uncommon,” he said. “Many artists used to bristle at the idea of commercial projects. There was a bright line between fine art and commercial projects.”


In recent decades, that bright line has dimmed. Stark has seen a general increase in branded artist partnerships over the past 20 years. Evidence can be seen on Artestar’s website, where Haring-branded watches live side by side with Dior runway models bearing the iconography of street artist Kenny Scharf, Zara tees emblazoned with Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, and Brooklyn Nets jerseys styled after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s distinctive script and colorways. Fashion and apparel collaborations are seemingly indispensable for contemporary art superstars, from Arsham’s crystalline corrosion on a Uniqlo T-shirt to Murakami’s Superflat chromatics splashed across a Louis Vuitton purse. But the collaborative options don’t end there.

“While fashion is a large part of our business, at Artestar we pursue projects in many product categories: skateboards, home décor, cosmetics, jewelry, stationery, toys, promotional and marketing programs, retail activations,” Stark said. The benefits of these multivalent partnerships for artists are numerous, according to Stark, including new audiences, new revenue and royalty streams, and enhanced trademark protections. The growing prevalence of artists engaging in merchandising in addition to their studio practices is a testament to the penetration and acceptance of these types of partnerships in the contemporary art world at large.

The artist becomes the brand

While commodity-based partnerships make up a large portion of the art-brand dyad, many artists are increasingly working in the realms of intellectual property (IP), leveraging their work to land deals in film, television, and beyond. In August of last year, Los Angeles–based artist Hebru Brantley signed to the talent agency William Morris Endeavor—whose clients include musicians, athletes, and actors, and whose parent company Endeavor is a majority owner of the Frieze art fairs—following the success of his 2019 exhibition “Nevermore Park.” As part of the deal, Brantley will “work with the agency to build his Angry Hero production company,” according to Deadline, and will also leverage his work and signature artistic characters like Flyboy and Lil Mama into content deals with Sony Pictures TV and Lionsgate, as well as “custom IPs” for a division of Madison Wells Media.

Firms like WME or United Talent Agency (UTA) can be gateways to a more variegated menu of personal and professional branding opportunities. “We focus on the projects that live outside of the white walls of the gallery,” said Lesley Silverman, a fine arts agent at UTA. “This can be anything from directing a film to collaborating with a brand, speaking, publishing, and more.” Silverman pointed specifically to UTA clients the Haas Brothers, best known for their sculptural design practice, as exemplary of the far-reaching IP possibilities available to artists today. While working on an animated comedy project, Silverman said, the duo began formulating a children’s book inspired by one of their sons. UTA published the book, and a partner produced an accompanying jigsaw puzzle. One idea becomes many, spinning out into a web of products and content with the artist at its center.

The Haas Brothers
"Long John Silver" Stool, 2016
R & Company
The Haas Brothers
Phil Crawlins, 2015
David Benrimon Fine Art

In these types of partnerships, artists seem to more closely align with the sort of branding typically pursued by celebrity athletes, actors, and musicians: They are signed not only for limited-edition engagements with their aesthetics or craft, but also for their larger personas—their brand. An artist like Brantley embodies not just a fantastical and adventurous aesthetic, but fantasy and adventure itself; Arsham is both a sculptor of sleek monochromatic monuments and sleekness incarnate. Their branded selves become what the author, scholar, and economic analyst Naomi Klein called “transcendent meaning machines,” communicating both a visual style and a worldview that underpins it.

This shift in emphasis from the artist’s work to the artist’s identity and personal style might be a consequence of the directness that social media engenders.“Now more than ever, artists are setting the tone because of social media and various other ways they can directly engage with their audiences,” Silverman said of the partnerships artists choose to pursue. “They get to be who they are, tell the world what they believe in, and do what they want to do.”

Daniel Arsham
Bronze Eroded Basketball , 2019
Pop Fine Art
Daniel Arsham
Light Grey Eroded Basketball Hoop, 2019
Baró Galeria

That influence is what ultimately led to Arsham’s deal with the Cavaliers, according to Anthony Curis, co-founder of Detroit’s Library Street Collective. “Daniel’s appointment as Creative Director acknowledges the massive influence artists have on culture today,” Curis said. “We’ve seen this across fashion and music, but now it’s reached sports.”

Whereas other basketball teams have appointed celebrity musicians including Big Sean and Drake as their cultural figureheads, the Cavs now have a hugely popular visual artist not only crafting but also representing the team’s entire visual identity. The deal marks a new milestone in the branding potential of the contemporary artist, beyond commodity collaborator or IP creator. This is the artist not just as a maker, but as artistic director, brand ambassador, and style coach.

Justin Kamp