Product Line: An interview with Kristin Ehring
ArtMerchandising & Media AG is a multinational corporation that advertises itself as "taking artworks out of museums and into everyday life." With a portfolio of some of the world's most renowned artists (including van Gogh, Hopper, Haring, Mapplethorpe, Scharf, and Warhol), this Munich-based company is a market leader in the multi-billion dollar art licensing industry. In addition to the merchandising of art rights to manufacturers for use on products and printed material, the company structures licensing deals for promotions with advertisers and corporations. The artist Carey Young interviewed Kristin Ehring, Executive Director of ArtMerchandising, by email.
How do you negotiate a license with an artist, or the owner of a work of art?
A successful licensed product is always a harmonious symbiosis of the artist's personality, the artwork, and the product itself. We work closely with artists to ensure that every aspect of our licensing program clearly complements their works, as well as their artistic philosophy. This requires great sensitivity in pairing artists with the appropriate target market, product, and licensee. It is important not to just put a print of a painting onto a product in an unthinking way. Instead, the goal must be to capture the artist's philosophy, formal language, and intention, and transfer these to the licensed product. To this end our designers work closely with the artist or estate involved. Only this "holistic" product concept can make each licensed product a work of art in its own right.
What kind of products have your artists' works been reproduced on?
The advantage of fine art is that its universal themes transcend nationality and economic status, and it therefore appeals to the majority of the population. As a result, practically every industry sector is interested in licensing art. For example, the home furnishing industry offers an almost perfect match with art licensing. In the case of the "Andy Warhol for Mercedes-Benz Classic Collection," we reproduced Andy Warhol's "Cars" series on high-quality merchandise, such as an exclusive porcelain range of mugs. We're also known for creating innovative forms of licensing, such as our Salvador Dali bible or Keith Haring furniture line.
We're increasingly finding that sectors of industry not traditionally associated with art are beginning to show an interest in art licensing, particularly within advertising and product promotion. In a cross-promotional campaign for a Keith Haring Renault TV commercial, we were able to persuade the Italian airline Alitalia to design a passenger aircraft in the style of Keith Haring. For the British asset management company F&C Management, we initiated an ad campaign using a portrait of Salvador Dali, which received broad coverage in business magazines in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Your annual report mentions that Dali has one of the strongest brands of any artist. Why is this, and what does he represent?
The Dali brand stands for stylized imagery and bizarre personal behavior. Dali was an individualist. He never made art for the masses. In his lifetime he worked very hard to create a cult of celebrity around himself—and succeeded. Therefore the brand appeals to those who are looking for exclusivity and individuality. It's a strong brand because it can transcend passing fashions.
How do you develop artists' works as trademarks?
Rather then thinking in terms of single products, we see artists as brands embedded within an integrated product line which, in its entirety, represents the lifestyle of the artist. This is what the consumer, as well as artists and estates/foundations, actually request. Developing an image as a trademark is important to maintain growth of the artist's brand while preventing brand dilution. For reasons of ownership rights and to identify the product as properly endorsed by the artist or his/her estate, we also create a "logo seal" which has to be printed on all packaging, point-of-sale, and advertising material that we create. As a result we are able to achieve a uniform, worldwide strategy for every artist we work with.
I'm very interested in the notion of marketing an "artist's lifestyle." How would you define this, in commercial terms?
Generally speaking, art licensing can be an effective instrument for generating brand awareness. Therefore not only the art but also the lifestyle of an artist, if it is in some way unusual or memorable, is essential for licensing as it is an integrated part of the artist's brand as a whole. To return to Dali, such an eccentric artist can be seen to represent highly creative, brilliant, and inimitable individuals. If you use Dali for a promotional licensing campaign, you can be sure that the consumer association with the promoted product or brand will be connected with these values.
What "ethical" parameters can be set by an artist's estate in terms of the use of their works?
The ethical parameters differ from artist to artist, respectively from estate to estate, and need to be treated individually. We always agree on certain product conversions or general positioning of the artist's brand. For example, some artists or estates have provisos against the promotion of products such as tobacco or alcohol. On the other hand, some artist or estates are very open to various kinds of licensing, if they are convinced that the brand and the conversion of their art onto the product matches their artistic philosophy as a whole.
How interdependent is the relationship between the value of an artist's work on the art market and their value or popularity in terms of licensing?
It is true that famous artists like Keith Haring or Vincent van Gogh bring high popularity. This would imply that the relationship between the value of an artist's work on the art market and the value in terms of licensing is interdependent, but this is not inevitably the case. Actually, we also have some promising young and emerging artists in our portfolio who are not yet well-known on the international art market, but who are doing very well in terms of licensing.
How and where do you find young artists to work with?
Since we've enjoyed a high profile in the international art licensing market since 1999, we are now in the fortunate position that artists actually contact us.
Carey Young is a London-based artist who appropriates business ideas and techniques within her work in order to explore ideas of identity, strategy, and progress. Her work can be seen at the ICA in London as part of the Beck's Futures awards 2003.