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A visit to Rainbow City: Where art and branding intermingle

Posted by: Jennifer Nunez de Villavicencio on July 06, 2011

Interbrand New York’s June design tour featured a visit to the second section of the High Line park and a viewing of the artist duo FriendsWithYou’s AOL-sponsored Rainbow City exhibit.

I’m a big fan of FriendsWithYou’s fun, bright, and happy work, which fulfills its mission to spread “Magic, Luck, and Friendship.” The striped box shaped pop-up, which is located at The Lot, the High Line’s temporary plaza, succeeds in making viewers feel like they want to buy the “candy” merchandise inside. Overall, the Interbrand New York office loved every visual minute of it – as has virtually everyone who has come in contact with it.

The response to Rainbow City, however, made me consider an intriguing point: Why is it that a corporate sponsored exhibit by FriendsWithYou sits well with the viewer and the majority of the world, whereas corporate sponsored works by artist giants like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst tend to make us wince?

The only thing that might be the differentiator between FriendsWithYou and these artists are how transparent, forthright and clear they are about their brands (yes, these artists are brands). FWY does not hesitate to bill itself as an experiential art, creative, IP development, branding, and merchandising agency established by artists Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III. Its website even states that FWY trademarked their mission to “to spread the idea of Magic, Luck, and Friendship™ around the world.” Meanwhile, a look at Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst’s websites reveal a more traditional approach, in which all three present themselves more as visual artists, with a list of exhibits, work, and schooling. Their websites all avoid any overt link out to where viewers can purchase merchandise – though in the case of Hirst, a well concealed “Other Criteria” link does take the viewer to a range of Hirst merchandise for sale, ranging from beach towels by Jasper John to skateboard decks designed by Hirst. Overall, however, they do a good job of maintaining an artist-friendly, high-brow, above-commerce, image to the world, despite all of their dabbles in crass commercialism.

And the let’s not also forget about brand Jeffrey Deitch, which throws another loop into the mix. As an art dealer, Deitch’s influence has boosted many of the world’s top, money-making artists. And now, in his role running MOCA, each museum decision Deitch makes will likely positively impact the artist’s he represented and his own personal art collection as well, in what is undoubtedly one chaotic and controversial convolution of culture, commerce, and brand.

So, what is the lesson here? Perhaps this: in today’s world, all artists are brands. While commerce and culture have always been bed-fellows (think how Michelangelo was commissioned to create statues for Italy’s richest families), they are now truly inseparable. So, why not take a cue from FriendsWithYou and be more transparent about it? The conversation about art is changing — to avoid an angry public, it might just make sense for these artists to fully embrace who they are and what they really do.

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