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August 16, 2012updated 08 Jan 2016 5:35pm

Francis Bacon Cushions and Damien Hirst’s £36,800 Skull: When Art Turns Into Merchandise

By Spear's

Artists, museums and galleries need to be ever-more innovative in how they raise money. The solution, says Josh Spero, seems to be getting artists to make merchandise a new branch of the arts
AN ITEM CAME across my desk a while ago, but I just found it again and it’s definitely worth a mention: a Francis Bacon cushion cover. Yes, the doyen of interior design (see studio pic below) has thrust his hand out of the grave, Carrie-like, and started sewing fabrics imprinted with some of his most interior-sensitive designs, like the blood-vomiting human-donkey from Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (pictured left) and the brutal simian whirlwind vortex of Seated Woman’s face (the one I received).

Now, inappropriate items of merchandise branded with an artist’s work or motifs are nothing new, as anyone who has visited a major exhibition lately can testify. In fact, this is one of the art world’s boom areas: Damien Hirst’s show at Tate Modern was accompanied by a £36,800 painted plastic skull, as well as a Butterfly-print deckchair for £310 and a Pill scarf for £125. Scarves are popular: Grayson Perry’s show last year at the British Museum was accompanied by Map silk scarves (£80 each), with Perry’s interpretation of the BM embodied by his teddy bear, Alan Measles.

Pictured left: Grayson Perry’s scarf for the British Museum
Textiles in general do well. At the Barbican Bauhaus exhibition, which closed on Sunday, you could have bought an Anni Albers Rug, based on a 1959 design, in 100 per cent hand-tufted hand-spun wool, for £975. (I’ll give the Barbican a little credit here, given that the Bauhaus was a movement about designs for life.)

It seems that homewares are the real money-spinner, to judge by the innovation which goes into them. Rachel Convers designed trays with birds in human clothes on for the National Gallery; they sell for £75, which might seem expensive until you remember, as the website points out, that ‘each tray is an individual work of art but is also a practical household accessory.’ You can buy melamine plates with Napoleon’s face (I suppose he did say that an army marches on its stomach) for £12 and a small wooden religious icon ‘inspired by’ Byzantine paintings (£5).
IN A TIGHT funding climate, where major museums and galleries had their government grants cut by 15 per cent last year, merchandise is more important than ever. Most do not have the resources to develop the thoughtful, relevant ranges which set the Tate galleries apart, says Laura Wright, CEO of Tate Enterprises, the company responsible for retail and publishing, including catalogues.

The opening of Tate Modern a decade ago prompted a reassessment of how they would commercialise their exhibitions, Wright says: instead of products available elsewhere, Tate would work with artists ‘to make our own products, make them unique, sell them through quickly and make them seasonal, like the high street’. With millions of visitors a year, the economies of scale made sense, and with a more discerning crowd, they needed thoughtfully-designed products.

Indeed, Tate were initially reluctant to put paintings on fridge magnets, tea-towels and mugs, before realising they were popular with visitors. It has paid off: on revenues of around £15 million, Tate Enterprises contributes £2.5-3 million a year, around 6 per cent of its self-generated revenue and 2.5 per cent of its total income.

Wright is rather defensive when I ask about a certain amount of mockery Tate received for its £36,800 Hirst skull. (Hirst himself, when asked about its value, unseriously replied: ‘Maybe on eBay you might be all right for a bit.’) Wright refers to ‘some quite purist art journalists’ and says that Hirst worked on it, specifying colours and such. Hirst was in fact involved in the creation of the whole range of clobber, both at ‘accessible price points’ and the higher end. Like fashion houses which put out a couture show to sell perfume, Tate sold none of the top-price skulls but plenty of mugs at £8.95. Prints between £2,000 and £10,000 went well.

Pictured above: Damien Hirst’s £36,800 skull for Tate Modern

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There are others like Hirst who see the financial or even artistic advantages of developing merchandise: the Tate’s annual report for 2010/11 says that ‘Chris Ofili, Susan Hiller, Gabriel Orozco, Peter Blake, Richard Wentworth and Mark Hearld worked with Tate to create products including clothing, prints and ceramics.’ Not all artists are happy to do so, however, Wright points out.
MUCH DEPENDS ON the popularity of the major exhibition programmes, and Wright is frank about this, agreeing that sometimes exhibitions don’t scream ‘money-spinner’ – but, she says, ‘The point of Tate isn’t to programme for the money – the point of Tate Enterprises is to make as much money for the Tate as we can.’ Hopper, Matisse Picasso, Warhol, Gauguin and Hirst sold a lot of merchandise, while the catalogue of the more specialist Gerhard Richter show went very well. (Gauguin in fact sold 33,000 catalogues.) Wright says that catalogue sales, reflecting an engaged or intrigued audience, can be a very accurate barometer of a show’s popularity, much more so than just visitor numbers.

Pictured above: Francis Bacon’s studio

Tate does come up with some actually desirable things every so often, but these are not post-hoc tat. At their Picasso and Modern British Art show, which pitched the master against British Modernists (who frankly stood little chance), you could buy original prints, such as one of an edition of 8,000 lithographs made for Picasso’s 1962 exhibition in Moscow (£1,895). My favourite is his poster for a 1959 show (£505), which has a bright scribbled interpretation of Las Meninas.

This British bric-a-brac is positively lacklustre when compared with that of American institutions. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, they sell items such as Albers’ Nesting Tables ($2,100), an Eames desk ($1,399) and gold lace border rings (get them while they’re on sale – $999.95 from $2,750) in a shop which you could easily mistake for Heal’s.

Here is the key difference: MoMA sees its shop as a chance to sell beautiful things, albeit with no connection to the art – in Britain, we shy away from that, believing that even a tenuous connection with an unlikely item legitimises it. Considering that cushion again, however, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

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