Are Brand Collaborations the Future of Art? A Conversation With New Art Advisors Alliance Co-Founder Teriha Yaegashi
One of the most extraordinary factors in the growth of the art market over the past decade is the sheer plenitude of new professions that have emerged to participate in the great financial machinery that gears up every time an artwork leaves an artist’s studio, ripe for a potential buyer. A dizzying array of entrepreneurs have seemed eager to sell pickaxes during this art-world gold rush, and one field of purveyor that has ballooned and metamorphosed dramatically is the venerable trade of the art advisor.
For one thing, everyone seems to be an art advisor nowadays. For another thing, these consultants now often work with clients that are not your typical art-collecting individuals, but corporate brands looking to tap into the contemporary-art zeitgeist. It’s in this climate that a novel organization, the New Art Advisors Alliance, has recently emerged as a way of connecting young players to these new opportunities.
Co-founded by the art advisors Teriha Yaegashi and Juliette Premmereur, a former dealer at Sperone Westwater Gallery, the NAAA is still in its early stages—its website lists just two members, and is currently accepting applications. But the thinking behind its establishment sheds plentiful light on the way that art deals are being structured these days, and with whom.
To find out more about the inspiration for the alliance, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Yaegashi, whose experience includes such diverse roles as marketer for Shiseido, coordinator for Kim Heirston Art Advisory, and project manager for Takashi Murakami, about the new opportunities that advisors are presented with today.
You bring a very diverse set of experiences to founding the New Art Advisors Alliance. For one thing, you were the collection manager for Takashi Murakami through his global art company, Kaikai Kiki. What does that mean? For his personal art collection?
Yeah. He mostly collects artwork by emerging artists, but he also has ceramics and vintage pieces, so it has grown into this huge thing—it’s probably collectively 3,000 pieces by now. I was the person to go around to all the different fairs on his behalf to report back on what was exciting, keep tabs on the artists he was interested in, see what was available, and then negotiate the deals for him. It was really interesting to do this for an artist as opposed to another kind of collector, because his collection is very, very intuitive—he picked pieces I wasn’t expecting.
It was also exciting because even though I had been hired to do the collection management portion, I was also traveling all around the world with Takashi, going to galleries, going to auctions, going to fairs, meeting with gallerists, and meeting with the artists. I also became his VIP coordinator and the artist liaison at Kaikai Kiki. The company really functions as a multi-service firm, which was really interesting, and I enjoyed it because I liked the idea of being able to do different kinds of things in the art world and having every day be different and every week be different. I felt like I was staying ahead of the times. It also made me realize that art isn’t this static thing—that it functions differently for different people and different contexts.
It sounds like an amazing job. Why did you leave?
I left Takashi’s mainly because of the earthquake in Japan. I had a lot of family there and I was actually flying back on the 11th with [Superflat artist] Aya Takano, which was the day of the earthquake. We were heading to the airport when it happened, and she said, “I still want to go home.” And I said, “Let’s do this.” After that experience, I needed to take some time off and volunteer. The whole thing made me want to try to do something else with art within the larger context of culture—so, not just art for the art world, but art in terms of reaching people in new ways. I ended up going to work for the ACE Hotel at their New York headquarters for a while, and then I left to pursue being an independent art advisor, because by that point I knew I was very good at things like doing branded artist partnerships and negotiating high-end fine works.
What are some of the branded art partnerships that you’ve done?
Well, I worked with an artist in the U.K. named Arran Gregory on a Johnnie Walker commission, which was originally a sculpture commission that expanded into a larger global campaign. Arran’s signature style is that he usually makes large mirrored sculptures, so for them he made a mirrored sculpture of the Johnnie Walker icon, the little man with the top hat and cane. So, that’s one example.
Part of the reason why I was interested in these kinds of partnerships was that I had been on both sides of the table. When I was working with Takashi, his Louis Vuitton project had finished, but there were still versions of the handbags with his prints in production and a couple of other projects that I liaised on from the artist’s side. Then, when I was at ACE, I worked on a number of projects where I would reach out to artists and commission them or ask them to collaborate on projects. Since I had both experiences, I decided it was something I was willing to do. I felt very confident that I could handle the art business side—but, of course, once you get into it there’s always something you don’t anticipate happening, or you simply don’t anticipate how long it will take.
What are some specific hurdles or challenges when it comes to these branded partnerships?
It ends up being very basic stuff, like figuring out how to draft proper proposals or agreements with going back and forth with lawyers, getting things in on time, and meeting with a number of different people. And then, after going through that whole process, not every single project comes through—and that’s completely normal, as every entrepreneur knows. It can be easier than working with individual clients, though. I’ve had people come to me saying they wanted to start a whole new collection, and then after many discussions it turns out they maybe just want one piece, and they need to go home and think about it. Some advisors get used to that rhythm. At these big companies, on the other hand, usually the projects are pretty solid. It’s not that they just want to have a chat—it’s that they have a very big thing planned, and need someone to execute it. It’s like it’s already in motion before it comes through the door. That was something that was a very big draw for me.
In all of this, what made you think there was a need for something like the New Art Advisors Alliance?
Going through this process of transition, I noticed that there were other people within my inner circle—brilliant people who spoke multiple languages and had advanced degrees—who had also been in the art world for a really long time and were jumping off to bring their talents to the world as independent consultants. I wondered if they were having the same issues that I had before, when I would try to reach out to others for support, for resources. There are all of these organizations that support young business-owners with things like grants or office space, but I would always get turned away because I wasn’t techie enough. Once I was even turned away because I was too old—and I was still in my 20s. How was I too old to begin a business?
So I realized there was a real need for this in the art world. What if I created something like this for other young art consultants who I think are so brilliant, knowing that they have no support coming from the gallery world, and that they might not necessarily have the same technical or business-protocol experience that I do? I’m no expert, but at least I’ve been around and I can recommend this or that person for a specific thing.
Juliette was one of those people who had gone independent around the same time that I did, and she loved the idea—and she has lots of experience in the gallery world, which is very different from me. I asked, “Would you like to come aboard as the co-founder?” And she said, “Absolutely, I had a similar idea. Why don’t we pull together all our resources and see what we can do to help springboard other young art people?” There are so many art consultants starting out now who are trying a new model and are seeking to work with a much broader clientele that is more closely affiliated with brand marketing. You can have intellectual conversations about whether or not you think it’s good or bad, et cetera, but I find it fascinating.
How is being an art advisor like brand marketing? What is the brand that you’re representing?
It depends on who the client is. I’m currently working with one startup company that is producing technology that will be geared toward the art world, but the people behind it are not from the art world—it’s an architect who became an entrepreneur and has hired a team of engineers. The new technology they’re creating is fantastic, but since their target market is the art world, they’ve got to figure out how to approach them. I told them, “Listen, as much as I love the product and as much as I love this company, the art world is a very specialized industry and we should rethink how you want to launch, because you only get to launch once.” So right now I’m helping them with a launch strategy. Otherwise, you know, brand-and-artist collaborations, specifically when they have an artist create something, are all about trying to add another dimension to what their brand represents.
Are you working with individual collectors at all?
Not so much at the moment. Juliette and I have both been working with all different types of people, mainly with companies as our primary clients, with private advising on the side. That hasn’t been the main priority. Instead, I often get requests from hotels and hospitality companies because they need art, and, again, that’s very closely tied to brand marketing because they’re trying to show how they’re different from whatever other boutique hotel is super hot right now.
This is a very different definition of an art advisor from the way the term is typically used.
It’s not really the role of an art advisor, it’s more like a branding consultant.
It’s a little bit of everything. But while this is something I’ve been finding myself doing lately, one of our members, Emily Higgins, is doing very much what you’d expect a traditional art advisor to do. She has one client who’s in New Canaan, and she helps other people acquire pieces. But she’s also very interested in branching more into brand and artist collaborations. The thing is, up until now, the art advisor has had a very specific role, and that was to help collectors or companies build collections. Now, the interest in art has expanded so widely that brands like Johnnie Walker and Ralph Lauren want to work on art projects.
To ask an obvious question, why? What is behind this whole explosion of corporate brands striking partnership in the contemporary art world?
It’s a number of different things. Art pretty much exclusively used to be an exercise in connoisseurship, pursued by people who were really, really passionate about art or artists. If you were a collector and you didn’t know much about art, you would invest a lot of time going to see shows and meeting artists, or you’d hire somebody to invest that level of time for you. It really was a matter of expertise. That’s all changed since the art market exploded—now that records are being broken with every auction season and so much money is being spent on art publicly, the excitement has led many people to enter the market for new kinds of reasons.
It’s starting to be seen as a more of a luxury item, or an alternative financial asset. Especially with social media, it’s become more about a luxury lifestyle. If you have a nice piece of art, you probably have a nice handbag, and you have a nice apartment, and you have a cool car, and you have X, Y, and Z, and you have this fabulous life—art is just a part of it. Or maybe you’re not necessarily ultra-rich, but you still have exquisite taste and everybody’s following your Instagram, so then you might declare yourself a tastemaker.
What’s interesting is that it seems there are two different tracks right now. On one track you’ve got the art market—people are actually buying and selling the artworks and participating in the financial aspects of the art world—and that goes up and down in at least some accordance with the broader economy. Then, on other track, you have the art audience, which has been expanding tremendously at an undiminished clip for years. These brands aren’t really interested in the art market, the province of the art advisor, are they? I would imagine they are far more interested in the art audience.
For the most part, these brands like Ralph Lauren and Johnnie Walker want the audience. Because the audience that’s looking at art is probably also looking at fashion and is probably also looking at music and they’re looking at fine liquor and wine. And, again, art has become such an aspirational thing that it lends itself as a perfect marketing tool. Their brands are aspirational, and that’s why they want to work with artists.
It has become the fantasy that they’re selling. “Look how incredible this piece is—there’s only one of them, we specifically commissioned it, and it’s part of our extended art collection.” For a brand to say that, it’s really interesting. It’s like, “Oh, wait, you guys are doing art now?” It’s the same with celebrities—being associated with art appears to add extra dimension and depth. “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that person was so into contemporary art.” It’s so interesting. I can go on for days about how I feel about it.
Well, how do you feel about it?
I think it’s fantastic that the art market is expanding, and I think it’s largely due to the expansion of the art audience. Because everybody is so connected and online now, people who didn’t have access to seeing artworks—especially when it comes to exquisite works that go up for auction and then disappear—suddenly can find them easily, on social media or archived on the internet. People have more of a voice, and everybody’s a curator now—they’re curating their own life, and they’re also trying to fill in gaps or add dimension to their story. They don’t necessarily need to be an expert, they can dive in and call themselves a curator.
I feel it’s great that there’s increased interest, but the I think that the increase of the accessibility of art has in fact made it all the more important to rely on people who still do have the expertise, because I don’t think connoisseurship will ever be irrelevant. It will always be relevant to art. Especially when someone wants to buy something, it’s important that they have help in navigating this world.
It’s notable in this fuzzy-ing of the definition of an art advisor that while a traditional advisor is trying to sell an artwork, flowing money into the art community, an art-world branding consultant is actually trying to sell an art audience a non-art product, like a handbag or an alcoholic beverage.
Yeah, definitely. But the funny thing about these artist-brand collaborations is that there is a real budget, especially when they’re doing commissions, that these companies are investing in art. Right now they’re paying the artist—and with commissions it can be a lot more than a single piece sometimes—plus they’re also buying the rights to a certain piece as well, so that they can move it in the future for photo ops or whatever that they need, and they’re additionally paying for the marketing component because usually there’s the “making of” videos or whatever that might be.
It’s a strange new world, and because there are real resources being directed toward these initiatives, it should be really done thoughtfully, and it should be done with artists who are very genuine about furthering their practice. They might be doing other work that’s more interesting, they might be doing the collaboration as a farce, but the fact that they’re doing it thoughtfully is what’s most interesting to me.
So even if these projects might not necessarily be at the highest level academically or curatorially, there’s a real budget that goes into the art world, and I think it can start to be done in a more elevated way than it has been before if we keep pushing it. My personal approach to art consulting is that any type of research should be used very thoughtfully, whether or not you want to buy an art piece as an investment or for your home or you’re a company that wants to commission a piece and throw a cool party to launch it with it.
I guess that, in the same way a collector wants to buy an artwork that will at least maintain its significance and value over time, corporations want to be associated with artists and projects that can gain prominence over time—and that won’t become some kind of joke.
How is the NAAA positioned to embrace this climate?
The art world is rapidly changing—there are all of these people who are trying to affect the industry through new technologies, new ways to cater to wider audiences. I want the alliance to be an organization where you can find the greatest, most talented, young art advisors—the ones that you’ll want to know tomorrow, and in 10 years, 20 years. Each of the people who have joined has a different strength within the contemporary art market, and I want to highlight each person’s strength, because there will sometimes be a potential client who comes in and I’ll feel perhaps another person might be better suited to handle their needs.
For example, there was one absolutely lovely family that I worked with and they’ve got this incredible art collection, but it’s mainly contemporary and modern Latin American art, and as much as I love the pieces, I’m just not quite at all an expert in that field. It made more sense for me to recommend to them to someone else in the alliance if they want to pursue further acquisitions or get into sales—and meanwhile I can still work on collection management with them. It’s these types of opportunities where instead of having to say, “Sorry, that’s not what I do,” and letting the conversation die, I’d rather say, “I do know somebody who’s absolutely fantastic and, from where I stand, you can trust them professionally.”
That’s why it’s important that our members have diverse skills. I mentioned Emily, who is very much the traditional art advisor, and yet she also takes beautiful photos and she has 25,000 followers on Instagram. She’s a very multi-talented, wonderful, cool individual. Juliette works more in the lifestyle arena and is consulting companies on how to work with art-world influencers and artists to do a mix of different things. Then we have one person who’s working on design and another person who’s more into real estate projects. Contemporary art is always at the center of what they’re doing, but they focus on different areas and different clientele bases.
That’s our goal, and I think that’s the exciting part. If I were a collector who didn’t know anything about art and I logged onto our website, I’d want to get a sense of each advisor’s personality and what their area of expertise is, so we have a photo of each person, a short bio that describes their background, and then a list of their areas of expertise with links to their personal websites and contact information. So, then, if I’m a real estate developer, I could scroll through and say, “Well, this guy has a lot of expertise in real estate, so I could try him, but here’s another person who has a bunch of hospitality experience, and that would be a good fit, too.”
That’s a pretty generous approach, actually. The NAAA recalls NADA, the New Art Dealers Alliance, which pools resources and produces cutting-edge art fairs. The difference is that gallerists have a long history of collaborating, while art advisors have typically been lone wolves who jealously protect their commissions. There hasn’t been that much incentive to share business.
That’s definitely been the traditional way, and some people have built empires for themselves, and I truly admire them because it’s extremely difficult to do. But, at the same time, because of my background working with entrepreneurs and creative teams where everybody brings their own strengths to the table, that kind of collaboration just makes more sense. The way I think of it, it’s not just about me, but at the same time it’s not just altruistic. If we get a commission, then great, everybody wins, but even if we don’t, just knowing that I’m putting a client that I respect and can work with again in the future in good hands, that’s a benefit to me as well, and it certainly benefits other members. I think collaboration is very much the future. Millennials are all about collaborating, and art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You seem more clever now if you can actually get along with more people, instead of constantly competing.
So, the NAAA isn’t really an alliance—it’s more like an agency?
It’s not quite—I wouldn’t say it’s an agency, per se. I guess it’s more like an association with both internal components and external components. The internal components are that we’ll have regular meetings, probably every other month, for the members to be able to meet each other, because I would really be able to love for everybody to know each other on a personal level and be able to say, “Hey, are you going to Basel? I’m not, so here are my VIP cards.” Or, “Hey, there’s this incredible Bulgari event, do you want to go? I have these extra tickets.” I’m also spearheading partnerships with other companies for things like discounts on travel or framing or shipping or whatever it might be, which is much easier to do as an entity than as an individual.
One of the companies we're in talks with Dover Street Market, which I’m ecstatic about because they’re not necessarily in the art world, but we’re talking about possibly doing an event that’s very exciting. I want to do a happy hour with special designers and art directors and us and have a champagne bar and walk around the store a bit. They want to do events with us because they see us as being in the young cultural scene, and in many ways they have the same sort of energy and outlook in fashion.
It’s interesting—the practice of art consulting is broadening and changing so much that I’m curious to know what it is going to mean in the future, in the next three years, five years, 10 years? Who are the real curators going to be? There’s the potential for dramatic change. At the alliance, we have brilliant minds in terms of aesthetics with different areas of expertise, and we can take advantage of this changing climate.
How do the artists you approach actually feel about the kinds of corporate partnerships that you’re talking about? Is it really an easy sell to get artists to work with brands? That would be a very big change from the conception of authenticity and independence that artists used to hold dear. I mean, this is an extreme example, but if you went to someone like Joan Jonas in the 1970s and asked her to do a partnership with Mastercard, she might have a rather colorful response.
Like, “Are you kidding?” [Laughs] Sure. Again, I’m biased because I’ve worked with Takashi Murakami and he’s one of those people who really opened up the Pandora’s box when it comes to brand partnerships, but it really just depends on the artist. Personally, I feel that if it’s the right collaboration or partnership, then it can great for the brand, and in some ways it can be really great for the artist, too, particularly if they’ve been under the radar or if they’re younger and they’re just getting out there. It can be great in terms of exposure and, depending on the brand, there might be a level of prestige.
The reason it makes a lot of sense to have a mediator like an art consultant in between is because these brands don’t have any experience with working with artists—they’re used to working with people like graphic designers or illustrators or product designers, and those people usually have much less of an expectation in terms of their rights for how the work will be managed. They’re asked to do an assignment, they deliver, they get paid, and that’s where the conversation usually ends.
Whereas with artists, it’s not at all like that. There are many conversations about how the rights work, how the imagery gets disseminated, et cetera—it’s much more complicated than these companies realize on the surface. And then, of course, because the artists aren’t used to working with companies, they sometimes they get wild expectations about what they think they should get paid. Because I’ve been on both sides, I can make the artists’ expectations much more realistic in terms of, “This is what this means for you, this is how it’s going to work, this is what you’re going to get out of it. Is this something that you still want to do?”
Some artists are really into it because they want that level of fame or they want to say that they’ve done that. I don’t necessarily think that that should be the reason for being in the art world as a creator—I think it should really be about the craft and leaving a legacy that’s relevant to the rest of art history, but that’s my personal opinion. But if the exposure and the fee is significant it can be very appealing to artists, and if they still want control they need somebody to advocate on their behalf. It’s not a good idea for the artist to be negotiating all of these terms themselves, because they would fare better with a tough negotiator working on their behalf.
Also, with the companies, I try to give them what I think are the best artist recommendations. They always want to work with the ones that they think are the most famous, but, a lot of the times, they’re a little behind in my opinion in terms of who they think are cool. Sometimes they’re open to my suggestions, sometimes they’re not. If they’re set on their own short list, oftentimes I’ll say, “I’m happy to reach out to them, but just so you know, for this project, it may or may not work.” And then I try to explain why the artist might say no—like, “At this point in their career, they’re focusing on museum shows and they’re not focusing on any type of commercial collaboration.” It can take that level of explanation; to most people in the art world it would seem like a very obvious thing, but if companies find an artist they think fits their brand they can have different expectations.
You mentioned that this form of consulting and collaborating is generational thing, and, in fact, the NAAA has a stated policy related to that: you only work with advisors who are under 40.
Yeah. It’s not a strict cutoff, actually, but I wanted there to be an indication that we’re focusing on a young generation of multitalented, forward-thinking advisors who are in their early stages of starting their businesses, so they’re still interested in exploring and broadening their network. This is not an place for people who have been doing it for 25 years, and that’s what I wanted to make clear. I don’t care if they’re 42 or 45—it’s more about, “What have you done, what do you aspire to do, what are you working on, who are you, and how do you want to participate?”
More established advisors might actually feel threatened by the idea of the alliance, like, “I don’t want to share my client list,” and of course they don’t need to share their client list—I would never expect that—but they should be open to referring their clients to other members. That might make them say no, and that’s totally fine. We’re an alliance in that each member is interested in contributing something, and one of the requirements that we ask for joining is that everyone adds three-plus contacts to the database. We want to be able to rely on each other, in the spirit of an incubator.
What has the reaction been so far? How many people have signed up for the NAAA?
Well, there’s been tons of positive, enthusiastic responses, and we have about 20 people who are in the middle of applying or have said they’re interested. It’s been somewhat of a slow process because it’s still a new concept for a lot of people, but I don’t want this to necessarily be a huge network of people right off the bat. I’m confident that it will grow because already the brands are really excited about this idea because, to them, it’s very intuitive to have one website that you can go to and you see different types of advisors with different strengths. Galleries have also been excited about this, because we could potentially increase their sales or their exposure, and I think artists appreciate the fact that there are some people who just want to make great things happen.
The NAAA seems to hit the moment in one respect, which is that it seems there are more and more art advisors these days—it seems like anyone with a foot in the art field is trying to arrange a deal of some kind. It used to be a cliché that everybody was a curator. Are art advisors the new curator?
I think that’s the case. There are a lot of people who go from being a collector to being an advisor too, so, yeah, it’s the new curator—but it’s even cooler, because about the market. The art advisors that we want to bring onboard, however, are people who have been in the art world for a good amount of time, so they’re insiders in the industry. It’s not just somebody who’s casually calling themselves an art advisor because they’ve helped two or three of their friends. It’s people who have experience, who have relationships, who have a certain level of art-historical background and can speak eloquently about it. That’s something Juliette and I have been emphasizing.
What does Murakami think about your venture?
[Laughs] You know, I haven’t told him about it. I think he would be intrigued. He himself has started an art fair, he’s launched galleries, he’s curated shows, and he’s always experimenting. He actually exhibited his art collection this past March in Japan. He likes to push the limits of what an artist can do and the roles the artist can play, so I think he’s probably very aware of how the art consultant world has changed. But I don’t know. I don’t think he would necessarily need us in any capacity.
Last question: How do you pronounce the NAAA?
It’s funny, because my mom calls it the “NAAAHHH,” and that sounds so awful. A lot of guys I know think it’s hysterical, especially artist guys. I’ve been just calling it the Alliance because I think that’s the spirit of it. It’s an alliance of great people. Entrepreneurs will always tell you, “You don’t build a product, you build a value, and then people buy the product.” That’s a very simple concept in many ways: you build the concept—you build that inspirational fantasy—and then people buy into the product because they want to subscribe to that. So let’s see what happens.