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Fine Art vs. Commercial Design

Compromising 75% of the greater arts property, the art and artists segment is fractured into a two-tier system—fine art versus commercial design.

Fine art continues to enjoy strong sales thanks to the name recognition of famous artists, both alive and deceased. Ten years ago, fine art-based merchandise was largely limited to high end product niches like couture and decorative collector’s pieces. Standards have relaxed somewhat; much of the growth in this segment is from fashion (limited edition ready-to-wear collections from both high fashion brands and fast fashion retailers like Uniqlo and H&M), everyday “luxury” goods (e.g. make-up, home décor, stationery) and high-end department stores.

On the flip side, consumer demand for more functional, lifestyle products has led to an explosion of deals with commercial artists who create artwork and designs for use in consumer products. Instead of wall art and greeting cards, growth is being driven by everything from iPhone cases to home furnishings to handbags. Mass retailers in particular are eager to stock a constant flow of new products. One retailer identified tattoo and body artists, and to a limited extent graffiti artists, as an emerging niche for related products like apparel and headwear.

Ironically, despite increased activity and sales, royalties are stagnant and guarantees are fast becoming non-existent outside of a handful of well-known artists. “Art licensing is good business for retailers, bad for artists,” sums up one consultant. An agent notes that commercial art is “becoming commoditized,” by retailers’ demands for faster production cycles, shortened shelf live and depressed royalties. At the same time, licensees are more involved with the art being licensed satisfy consumer trends and demands for customization.

“It’s almost impossible to make a living,” for lesser-known commercial artists, notes one licensor. Outside of a small number of A-listers, an over-saturated market means that it is difficult to build a brand presence. One agent points to an influx of webinars and online forums that coach new artists to stake out on their own. “People don’t think they need agents anymore,” and are growing increasingly accepting of stricter terms and conditions in licensing deals.


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