Summarize

Here is an opinion on the personal brand of Jeff Koons, until quite recently the most expensive living artist of our times. We place this item in the "cases" section, since each of Koons' works is the case - intriguing, extraordinary, sometimes civil. They say, good business is the best art. Koons bases his astonishing business on the art of ideas. Read more in the opinion of Maria Boicova-Wynants

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Maria Boicova-Wynants,

Mediator, Business Writer, Trademark and Patent Attorney

Business of Koons

Jeff Koons. His perfectly polished Balloon Dog can mesmerize you or leave you indifferent. His New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker can trigger childhood memories, push you to reflect on the frailty of existence or the “battle of sexes”, or prompt a classic question: “How is that art?!” His “Made in Heaven” series can shock you, make you question the limits of what is acceptable or may allow you to connect with Koons on a deeper level (whatever that means). In other words, his art can be open to debate. Nonetheless, my favorite contemporary art critic Peter Schjeldahl rightly coined him as “the signal artist of today’s world” with an add-on: “If you don’t like that, take it up with the world.” “This world” seems to be firmly at Koons’ side, as there are numerous collectors admiring his works and willing to pay hefty sums for his creations. If you happened (surprisingly) to never have heard of Koons, I would recommend a somewhat critical but informative article on the artist — “The Cult of Jeff Koons” by Jed Pearl in the New York Review of Books as of September 25, 2014. Pearl gives a great overview of Koons’ career up to the famous Whitney retrospective when Koons got himself an entire museum to exhibit the results of his decades-long work.

Regardless of your attitude towards his art, what one surely cannot deny Koons is his business acumen. The Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg once called him “the Warhol of his time”, while the latter is known to have said: “business art is the step that comes after art… good business is the best art”. Koons seems to have mastered this “best art” perfectly. So what is the business of one of the most expensive artists of our times? In a nutshell, Koons sells ideas.

That’s right. He originates ideas for artworks, but doesn’t actually make them himself; he oversees the work of his studio. Even though talking about the latter, since 2015 he has been subsequently cutting down the number of studio assistants and is currently even contemplating the idea of automation. Downsizing his studio is a logical step for Koons, given that for many recent pieces he anyway collaborated with different specialists outside his studio. Art and outsourcing. On this topic, in one of my articles, I have reflected on the concept of authorship, providing an example of Tombeaux by Jan Vercruysse — amazingly realistic musical instruments made from Murano glass. For that artwork, Vercruysse contributed an idea, while it was the craftsmen who actually made the pieces. I argued that without the skill of a craftsman the artwork would not be possible, so the whole concept of authorship is questionable. In the case of Koons, we are talking about a whole creative machine — assistants, collaborators, even automated solutions: computers and other devices — that are all working to realize what he envisioned. His ideas.

The art critic Robert Hughes called Koons “a starry-eyed opportunist”, attributing his success to “aggressive self-marketing”. One might indeed be tempted to draw such a conclusion. However, his ideas sell and which is more important — they sell in advance. This is another crucial component of Koons’ current business success: he sells first, makes second. The idea of pre-selling in itself is not new. The famous sculptor Auguste Rodin is known to have first exhibited cheaper versions of his sculptures made in terracotta or even just plaster. Then he secured commissioning in stone or in bronze and only after receiving the payment the sculptures were actually manufactured in all their glory. Nevertheless, in the case of Rodin, his ideas were still materialized before being sold, even though in a cheaper medium. In case of Koons, as said earlier, he sells at the moment his idea is formed in his head, while no actual object exists yet. Moreover, it can remain non-existent for many-many (unpredictably many) years to come.

There is yet another stroke to the image: once a collector buys a future piece by Koons, it is not a given that the selling price is final, nor the collector gets any clue about when the piece will be completed. Koons might come back for more. More money, I mean. Time, it will take more for sure and some collectors get annoyed by it to the point of filing lawsuits against galleries representing the artist (see e.g. Tananbaum v. Gagosian, Silver v. Gagosian, or Moretti v. Zwirner). However, in general, as long as Koons’ works rise in price, everyone just waits. You can’t rush art, you know, and if there is a general belief that the investment in Koons’ ideas is rising in value, existent or not, his artworks receive the desired sponsorship. 

Besides, Koons has something for almost everyone. If you don’t happen to have $54 million to buy the Balloon Dog sculpture, you can always buy a scale model for $5,000 at Artsy; or maybe a handbag with an image of the Balloon Dog and a desired “JK” underneath for a mere $2,500. Likewise, Koons is open to cooperations with brands. He worked with Stella McCartney, Lady Gaga, BMW, Louis Vuitton, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and some others, securing numerous income streams from all these cooperations, while significantly enhancing his own personal brand. His personal brand is, in fact, the largest component of the success of Jeff Koons. Thus, Hughes might have been right after all: it all starts with self-marketing, which Koons is a true master of. Then again, Koons’ pieces, despite the allure of “readymade on steroids”, do have their unique magnetism and are true “perfectionistly perfect”. Above all, they have rising monetary value. Market backed up. Thus, as long as the market believes in Koons, as long as fashionistas are proudly swinging their “Masters Collection” speedies, wearing rabbit pendants and sipping 2010 Chateau Mouton Rothschild with Koons’ designed etiquette, the business machine of Koons will keep on rolling.

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