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Everyone has a theory

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about when fine art first escaped the confines of museums and galleries and entered the pop world of marketing. Some say it happened in 1933, when Salvador Dali licensed his name for a Scaparelli fabric. Others claim it was in 1985, when Andy Warhol painted an Absolut ad. Still others argue it isn't a modern phenomenon at all: They point to 1888, the year English painter John Everett Millais allowed a marketer at Pears' Soap to engrave the company name into his canvas.

The truth is, art and commerce have been aligned for as long as man has had ideas to communicate. But in the last decade, say fine art and ad experts, the two worlds have staged a public mating dance. "There has been a palpable change in the use of fine art as a promotional tool," says Julia Gruen, executive director of the New York-based Keith Haring Foundation. "It's become big business."

And everyone wants to cash in.

In a world of increasing ad clutter and decreasing attention spans, some marketers turn to fine art to lend their brands uniqueness, cachet or an instantly recognizable message. Agency creative directors appreciate the singular work that results from a collaboration with fellow visionaries. And artists, especially young ones, are hungry for the exposure that licensing their work brings.

A small, diverse group of agents and intermediaries are bringing these two worlds together.

Eight-month-old ArtMedia Group represents the estates of Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and New York's Whitney Museum of American Art; and living artists such as Kenny Scharf, Peter Marco and Andre Charles. With its roster of established and up-and-coming artists, the New York- and Munich, Germany-based ArtMedia Group hopes to become the go-to company for advertisers looking to license or commission fine art.

Executive director David Stark, who spent a decade as creative director of the Haring estate, says the time is right: "Ten years ago, there was the notion that you can't overexpose [an artist]; you would dilute the art." He says the success of the campaigns he handled for the Haring estate showed him that advertising could engage people with fine art. But to marketers, the art world can be a maze of museums, galleries and executors. "We provide a service to the agencies," says Stark. "We can navigate them through the rights holders."

Similarly, New York-based Art + Commerce was founded in 1982 to represent photographers for commercial and editorial work. Although the company has since expanded to include stylists and other creatives, its roster of photographers includes heavy hitters like Annie Liebovitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Nan Goldin and Steven Meisel.

"When we started Art + Commerce, there was a big divide between the art world and the commercial world," says partner Anne Kennedy. "That divide has lessened. … I think the culture has changed: Media, art and fashion have become closer. Artists at one point were not very involved with fashion, but they don't steer away from it the way they used to."

Other companies that generate commercial exposure for artists include embryonic brand consultancy Creative Research, Advertising & Marketing. CRAM is a collective of six freelancers in New York and London with a database of artists and corporate clients. Art O'Rama in Venice Beach, Calif., provides on-set art to the advertising and entertainment industries on the West Coast. Even some stock agencies, such as Swanstock, a division of Seattle-based Image Bank, offer photographs originally shot for gallery shows and provide a link between artists and the commercial world.

Marketers solicit these companies because they want something unique—something they won't see in a competitor's print campaign.

Caitlin Hume of CRAM helped find corporate sponsors for last year's controversial "Sensation" art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. She has consulted with companies such as Levi's and Panasonic to help the brands win hipster credibility. "[Many corporations] want to reach a young, innovative audience. Those people are often the hardest to reach because they're cynical," she says. "You have to dazzle them with something innovative and original."

Yet using fine art in advertising can be a risky business, argue some agency creative executives. Using artists in ads "is analogous to using a star in a commercial," says Phil Gant, chief creative officer of BBDO, Chicago. "Is it something that's integral to a concept or is it something that's superfluous?"

Too often, he says, "fine art is denigrated if it's part of a punch line. I think fine art ought to stay sacrosanct and not be part of a message. It's dependent on what you're trying to say. Do you have a clear, focused message or are you just trying to be like, 'Oh, look, we used a piece of fine art, aren't we hip?' "

Kathy Delaney, a partner and executive creative director of Deutsch, New York, is interested in working with what she calls unexplored artists. "It comes down to having a unique approach," she says. "A good artist is a good communicator. We [creative directors] don't tap into that enough."

In a campaign that broke for Ray-Ban earlier this month, Deutsch commissioned photographer Danny Clinch to show real people in urban settings sporting the company's shades. It was the first time Clinch had worked commercially.

Delaney prefers to work with living artists rather than artists' estates. "It's great when you can sit down with the artist and the client and it's a collaboration, as opposed to force-fitting someone's vision to fit your message," she says.

While agents are looking to profit from the melding of fine art and commerce, most insist they would never compromise an artist's vision. In fact, the key to winning the trust of artists and marketers is making appropriate matches.

"We are very careful about pairing an artist's sensibility with a particular product," says Hendrik te Neues, who sits on the board of ArtMedia Group's parent company, ArtMerchandising & Media AG in Munich. "The projects we're going after are high profile—the copyrights are intact, so the art is still valuable. We are creating a partnership that will enhance the art and the brand."

Licensing big-name artists is especially tricky because those artists (or the executors of their estates) have established reputations to protect. ArtMedia Group combats overexposure by granting agencies exclusive rights to an artist's work within a category in a designated territory, usually for up to one year. In return, artists or their estates earn between $150,000-500,000.

Both sides credit Andy Warhol with giving commercial work credibility within the fine art world. "Warhol legitimized it, in my opinion," says Los Angeles-based artist Kenny Scharf. "What is commercial? What is fine art? I like to cross those boundaries. As an artist who takes a lot from the pop world, to bring [fine art] back into that world is exciting."

Haring, one of the world's most-licensed artists, was also influenced by Warhol. "Without Warhol, there would be no Keith Haring," says Gruen. "Self-promotion was always looked at as a big no-no in the fine art world." But thanks to Warhol, "that has changed substantially," Gruen says.

Many established artists made their names when commercial work carried a greater stigma. "The fact that Keith [Haring]'s work was accessible to the public did not minimize his need for acceptance by the traditional art world," Gruen says. "They felt he was selling out, [and that] for him to try to walk in these two worlds simultaneously was a dilution of his intention. Keith felt it was all part of the package, but he was very concerned with how he was perceived."

Scharf, whose animation-influenced paintings sell for up to $100,000, says there is still a stigma attached to lending your work to commercial efforts. "I know I am a victim of it," he says. "Sure, I get knocked off a list here and there because someone might have some disdain for what they think is commercial, [but] I've always believed I could be one of those people who could lessen that opinion."

New York painter Peter Marco, whose colorful "alien baby" character adorned the best-selling Swatch of all time, doesn't feel his licensing deals threaten his worth as a fine artist. "It's like comparing apples and oranges," Marco says. "Ten thousand pieces of dishware doesn't change the fact that someone owns a one-of-a-kind canvas."

Bronx-born graffiti artist Andre Charles agrees. "[Detractors] say it's selling out, but at the same time, you're breaking boundaries," says Charles, who once worked with Haring and has handled marketing assignments for Mountain Dew and Land's End. "I want to open doors for other people who are struggling the way I struggled. … I'm going to make the new term 'selling in,' because I'm selling my ideas in that world." Just like Warhol.

Warhol was the first fine artist to create an ad for Absolut Vodka. The Absolut campaign, from TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York, was probably as influential as Warhol in making commercial work acceptable, even desirable, to artists. Four years after TBWA's Absolut effort began in 1981, Michel Roux, president and chief executive of Absolut importer Carillon, paid Warhol $65,000 for a rendering of an Absolut bottle. Roux liked the painting so much, he suggested using it in an ad.

Warhol suggested Roux's next commission, Haring, who in turn introduced him to Scharf. After three years and six executions by various artists, Roux decided to use the campaign to help launch the careers of less-established artists. "Michel took enormous pleasure in his role as the de' Medici of Teaneck," wrote TBWA worldwide account director Richard Lewis in his 1996 Absolut Book. "[It] was an important way to establish Absolut's identity as a supporter of the arts and a friend of artists. ... Along the way, Michel has helped hundreds of artists find an audience and pay their bills."

The success of the Absolut campaign has had an enormous influence in both the advertising and art worlds. "Absolut made it acceptable, even good business practice, to use art and artists in advertising," Lewis says. "We certainly weren't the first … but before Absolut, I always had this sense that there was art and there was business. You could employ artists and you could sponsor art, but nobody tried to integrate it into advertising. Nobody tried to integrate the brand into the art. … I think we showed that it works, that it doesn't consume the other message."

The campaign is also high profile in the artistic community. Peter Marco envisions his Absolut ad outdoors "on a big billboard, something you'd see on buses. I want the exposure element." Andre Charles has an even grander plan: He wants to spend 72 hours living and painting inside a giant outdoor Absolut bottle.

Another art-friendly brand is Mercedes-Benz, which uses artists' works and likenesses to emphasize product attributes. A 1999 spot features Pablo Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh assembling cars in a Mercedes factory. The message, according to co-creative director Andy Hirsch, is that these artists have produced "icons of beauty, and Mercedes is also an icon. We compare ourselves to the highest that there is."

Hirsch and his partners, Randy Saitta and Marty Orzio (who followed the account when it shifted from then-Lowe & Partners/SMS to Merkley Newman Harty in May 1999), used a combination of look-alikes, computer animation and existing film footage to put the artists to work. Acquiring rights to their likenesses from the appropriate museums or estates, Hirsch says, "was a long, involved negotiation. They don't lend their likeness to every commercial that's out there."

A strong reel can win artists over to nonluxury brands as well. Rubin Postaer & Associates in Santa Monica, Calif., used Haring's work in 1995 and, since September, has filmed photographer William Wegman's trademark Weimaraners in TV spots for Honda Odyssey minivans.

Mark Erwin, svp and creative director at RP&A, says, "With Haring, we thought there was a conceptual connection with a lot of his characters that represented family. We were introducing a minivan and wanted to show the idea of family without showing a white picket fence and kids playing in the yard." Haring's crawling baby, Erwin says, was a "fresh, modern symbol that would stand out in a category [in which the advertising] is pretty much interchangeable."

David Stark, then creative director at the Haring estate, helped broker the deal with RP&A. Since leaving last year to head ArtMedia Group, he has licensed Haring's art to Publicis S.A. for use in an Italian Renault ad and to Hakuhodo for Honda marketing in Japan.

The Rubin Postaer team faced a huge challenge in animating Haring's work, since the estate maintains strict approval over commercial use of his art. The second round of ads, shot with Wegman's collaboration, were significantly easier. The greatest challenge may have been winning over the photographer, whose work has been licensed widely for paper products, but who had never participated in an ad campaign before. Erwin and his copywriter partner, Wendy Knox, contacted Wegman's wife and manager, Christine.

"They called back with some hesitation, but interest," Erwin says. "He had been approached hundreds of times, but they were not sure how it would be perceived by the fine art world." Erwin and Knox won the pair over, in part by showing them the Haring ads. "It was a major coup to elevate the brand message by having a Wegman campaign," says Erwin. "We were extremely conscious of that fact—and we paid dearly for it."

It's a testament to marketers' ingenuity that they use contemporary art to evoke minivan culture on one hand and bold transgression on the other. Art + Commerce brokered Helmut Lang's use of Mapplethorpe photos in the designer's current print effort. The ads feature reproductions of black-and-white photos ranging from the ordinary to the provocative—including a portrait of artist Louise Bourgeois, a tattered American flag and a man in a polyester suit with exposed genitals.

Kennedy says the deal was sparked by Lang's personal interest in Mapplethorpe's work. "Lang is a designer whose cultural reach extends further than just fashion. Because of that, it makes sense for him, in terms of advertising, to reach further into the culture through the art world, which he feels very connected with."

Michael Stout is Lang's lawyer and executor of the Robert Mapplethorpe estate. Mapplethorpe "wouldn't have been against it," Stout says. "Helmut sees himself as a fine artist and associating himself with Mapplethorpe elevates his brand."

Call it visual synergy.