Wandering the Arts in Action festival this weekend, I got to musing about branding. Art must make money; artists compete with one another for scarce revenue sources: commissions, sales, lessons, and patronage.
As such, they must build a strong identity: Their works must be both both recognizable and memorable. I can pick out a Turner, a Chagall, a Picasso, along a crowded gallery wall. Their style, subject, medium, and technique all help to both gather their works within a conceptual framework and to distinguish it from their peers and imitators.
So I could argue that establishing a personal brand is crucial to being a successful artist.
But walking the aisles, there were many who had devolved to ’one-hit wonders” – they found a signature tic that worked for them, commercially or competitively, and replicated it over and over.
The body of work may be recognizable and distinguishable, but the individual uniqueness of each piece has disappeared into cookie-cutter variations on a single theme. When the works start to look mass-produced, they diminish as art and, correspondingly, in value and demand.
The more successful displays were those where the technique defined the space, but the works spread within it. They incorporated themes, but each work was distinct from others.
Branding requires balance. Having strong identification is important: otherwise artists neither distinguish themselves nor build audience.
But to much uniformity risks becoming ‘fast food’, a commodity business that depends on volume sales. That’s important if your reputation is build on familiarity, consistency, predictability, and price. But, for an artist, or an emerging business, that can be both demanding and unrewarding.
More than just a niche strategy, successful brands at the show both defined and explored a space. Works by these artists, these businesses, are unique, tailored, ultimately more valuable. In best cases, they drive a market ecosystem (7 Days in the Art World) rather than just transactions.