When Will Brands Look Beyond Street Art? - Op-Ed by Andrea Hill

 GucciGhost's intervention into a Gucci storefront in Manhattan. Photo: Kevin Tachman. Courtesy Gucci.

GucciGhost's intervention into a Gucci storefront in Manhattan. Photo: Kevin Tachman. Courtesy Gucci.

 If street art could now reach both high and mass culture alike, then brands could calibrate these flexible associations to fit with their messages and needs. More collaborations ensued with “art world-approved” street artists...

Street art has stepped assertively into the corporate branding world and made its mark on office walls as commissioned art, at brand events as live performance graffiti, and as product design on sneakers, perfume, luxury watches, apparel, and home decor. As more brands have embraced the movement, street art has been steadily retreating from the street level. What is it about street art that has made it the go-to collaboration strategy for brands, and what are the other opportunities that brands have missed in the wider pool of creative talent

In 2008, Shepard Fairey’s portrait of Obama became an iconic image and viral campaign symbol. The piece raised the stakes for how street art could circulate online to capture a historical moment. This timing also aligned with the rise of digital marketing and its goal of “going viral.” But the majority of street art was not made for the internet, and, with the history of graffiti deeply rooted in anti-establishment rule-breaking, this often created an uncomfortable fit with corporate branding campaigns. Collaborations between Vicomte A (the French brand favored by preppies and aristocrats) and Nasty, not to mention Moschino’s unauthorized appropriation of street artist Rime’s work, displayed a lack of connection either between brand and artist or between brand identity and choice of street art.

Bridging the gap between street art’s street origins and the luxury market’s high price points became easier when the art market and institutions started to embrace and legitimize the movement. The enduring influence of 1980s street artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the more recent commercial successes of Banksy, Swoon, Barry McGee, and KAWS, created a new collecting category and active marketplace that matured in the mid-2000s and continues to see records broken. In 2017, the auction block saw a Basquiat painting surpass the USD 100 million mark, and, in 2011, street art gained institutional credibility with the MOCA Los Angeles exhibition "Art in the Streets," curated by then-director Jeffrey Deitch. If street art could now reach both high and mass culture alike, then brands could calibrate these flexible associations to fit with their messages and needs. More collaborations ensued with “art world-approved” street artists: MOCA x Levi’s featuring Kenny Scharf and KR, Hennessy and Nike with Os Gemeos, Louis Vuitton with Banksy.

As 2018 audiences are becoming savvier, and seeing through attempts at quick image fixes or superficial marketing ploys, brands need to be more thoughtful about their collaborations. Gucci, under the helm of Alessandro Michele, has forged commercially successful and critically respected collaborations with a range of contemporary, outsider, and street artists. GucciGhost’s intervention in the Gucci’s 2016 women’s collection was a fascinating case of bootleg-meets-real fashion and fan art picked up by the brand.

With street art as the perennial favorite for brand collaborations, other rich artistic arenas have gone under-explored. Internet art, for example, was born online and exists for online audiences. Moreover, many net artists have shown a fascination with brand culture, integrating its imagery and practices into their work. Performance art is another category gaining prominence, potentially aligned with experience-driven brand strategies. An “art collaboration” does not necessarily mean “street art,” and a performance does not necessarily mean “musician.”  Ultimately, long-term success with creative collaborations requires looking past trends, obvious solutions, and the usual KPIs to consider values such as pushing boundaries, originality, supporting emerging or underrepresented voices, and the elusive element of surprise.

Andrea Hill is a New York- and Amsterdam-based entrepreneur and creative director who has founded companies that bring the ideas of artists and designers to a broad public. Paloma Powers and Culture™ both address how brands can better support culture and best practices for artist-brand collaborations. Companies such as Gucci, Bergdorf Goodman, Airbnb and Absolut Art have sought her expertise in implementing cultural solutions and identifying artists for their campaigns, retail experiences, marketing events, and new initiatives. This spring, she is launching TORTUGA, a direct-to-consumer furniture company focused on modular pieces created by young designers.