The Luxury Of Art In China

Blending Of Art And Luxury Becoming More Common As Commercial Tie-Ins Prove Lucrative For Luxury Brands And Artists Alike

Will the Hermes-obsessed Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi become the first in China to take part in a domestic luxury-art partnership?

Will the Hermes-obsessed Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi become the first in China to take part in a domestic luxury-art partnership?

Today, Art Market Monitor, by way of Newsweek magazine, looks into the phenomenon of art-luxury commercial tie-ins, which have existed in some form for decades but are becoming more common as well as more commercially viable. We have discussed the art-luxury tie-in before, in our profile of Hong Kong’s “A Passion For Creation” art/product exhibition, organized by Louis Vuitton. But the articles in AMM and Newsweek point out some interesting nuances about the art/luxury collaboration.

AMM summarizes the article very concisely as one in which the writer “wonders about Vacheron’s new line of $367,000 watches inspired by African and Oceanic masks, Ikepod’s Jeff Koons watches and Louis Vuitton’s association with just about everyone else. (Okay, just Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami.)” But building on some of the observations in our articles about the melding of art and luxury, and how much of these partnerships can be boiled down to market necessity (as many luxury and art buyers may continue scaling back amid the ongoing slow economy), Newsweek’s Nick Foulkes expertly breaks down how the separate spheres inhabited by the arts and luxury brands are, rather than being entirely separate, have a symbiotic, Venn diagrammatic relationship.

As Foulkes (and AMM) note:

There was a time when artists inhabited an altogether loftier plane than the purveyors of luxury goods. There were occasional crossovers, such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian-inspired dress and Château Mouton Rothschild’s artist-designed wine labels. But rarely did the twain meet.

Of course, what art confers is gravitas, and in the 1980s luxury did not have the cultural payload it carries today. That was when Alain Perrin, the CEO of Cartier and an enthusiastic art collector, inaugurated the Fondation Cartier—a prescient move, given luxury’s subsequent shift to the intellectual high ground. The Fondation, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, commissions works of contemporary art for display in a dazzling space designed by Jean Nouvel.

Luxury brands have a weakness for bold architecture. Frank Gehry is designing a space for the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which will exhibit contemporary art when it opens in 2011; in 2007 Chanel mounted a globe-trotting exhibition of artworks inspired by Chanel bags housed in a pavilion designed by Zaha Hadid; and Prada’s polyhedral Transformer structure by Rem Koolhaas in Seoul is the latest “it” building. Located in one of the brand’s emerging markets, it is testament to the ambassadorial effect that art can have on behalf of luxury marques.

One consequence of the increasing desirability of contemporary art is that some artists have amassed fortunes that were unthinkable a decade ago. Beijing art dealer Fabien Fryns has introduced many leading European collectors to Chinese contemporary art. “What has surprised me since I first came in 2004 is that artists who lived simply have now achieved the sort of wealth that makes them like rock stars,” he says. “It is far from unknown for an artist to drive a Ferrari, Maserati, or fully loaded Range Rover. One of my closest friends is the artist Zeng Fanzhi. Until 2002 he lived very modestly; now he is fascinated by the great luxury houses of Europe, especially Hermès.”

The power of Zeng’s work has yet to be officially harnessed by one of the leading luxury-goods houses, but unofficially he has already made his first art product. “Recently my mother visited Beijing,” says Fryns, “and she had a plain canvas bag from Fendi that came with a set of crayons. I was rather touched when Zeng Fanzhi spent half an hour drawing on the outside. I hope my mother is using one of her other handbags when she goes out shopping.” Given that Zeng’s most expensive work sold for $9.7 million, this one-of-a-kind Fendi must surely be one of the most valuable handbags in history.

I think these last two paragraphs offer the most interesting glimpse of the potential future of these partnerships. One major consequence of the rise of China’s economy, and growth in its wealthy population, has been an attendant growth in art interest by this wealthy class. With China’s vast and growing consumer culture (and increasingly domestic luxury brand presence), as well as its vital contemporary art scene, there is a great deal of potential for home-grown art-luxury collaborations. Much like the Zeng Fanzhi purse described by the writer, I can imagine dozens of applications for which contemporary Chinese artists could be commissioned to bolster luxury brands while making these extremely expensive artists’ work more accessible to a wider audience.

One response to “The Luxury Of Art In China

  1. Pingback: Rise Of New Chinese Collector Continues As Chinese Antiquities Remain “Recession Proof” « ChinaLuxCultureBiz

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