Art Demystified: What’s Behind Art’s Uneasy Celebrity Courtship?

Art and celebrity have traditionally had a rocky relationship.

Kanye West and Takashi Murakami. Courtesy of PATRICK MCMULLAN/

The art world collectively raised its eyebrows when Sotheby’s Hong Kong announced a collaborative curated auction with Choi Seung-hyun, the 28-year-old Korean boy band star known as T.O.P.

The auction grossed $17.5 million, but the financial results weren’t really important for the 272-year-old auction house. As CNN pointed out, the collaboration was a thinly-veiled attempt to market the Sotheby’s brand to millennial Asian collectors.

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The art world’s newly discovered courtship of celebrity is deeper than it seems, which is why it’s making so many people uneasy.

Citing statistics from the Boston Consulting Group, CNN reported that in China alone, consumption of goods and services among 18 to 30-year-olds is growing at 14% a year—twice as fast as the 35 and older demographic. Consequently, Sotheby’s recruited T.O.P. (and his 5.8 million Instagram followers) as a sort of brand ambassador, since K-pop remains one of the most popular music genres across the Asian continent.

South Korean pop star T.O.P. with Nam June Paik, Fat Boy. Courtesy of Sotheby's Hong Kong.

South Korean pop star T.O.P. with Nam June Paik, Fat Boy. Courtesy of Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

Whether Sotheby’s strategy will pay off remains to be seen. We witnessed the flip-side of what happens when art world celebrity endorsements go wrong when pop sensation Björk’s 2015 show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was universally panned by critics.

But the potential pitfalls aren’t stopping art institutions from hiring celebrities to attract a broader audience. Sotheby’s already tested the celebrity endorsement strategy in March last year when the auction house invited Canadian hip hop superstar Drake to select the music for their African American art private sale in New York.

Björk at the Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy of TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images.

Björk at the Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy of TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images.

Meanwhile comedian and art collector Steve Martin curated an exhibition of landscape painter Lawren Harris at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum which later traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Rapper and producer Pharrell Williams also tried his hand at curating at Paris’ Perrotin gallery in 2014.

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Italian curator Francesco Bonami is among those who views the trend with suspicion. He went so far as to label the “celebrity machine” in art as the number one source of today’s art world problems—ranking it as more problematic than everyone’s favorite scapegoat—the market.

“The museum as a celebrity machine, I think is maybe more disturbing than the money equation,” he told Art In America last year. “What is immoral is to make museums appear fair and pure, as though no conflict of interest is happening.”

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