Who Will Be the Boy Bands of Tommy Mottola's Art Empire?


The rise and fall of the mass-produced hit — be it movie, song, or movie star — is a phenomenon unique to the last century. Nowhere has this cycle been more palpable over the past two decades than in the music industry, which, as detailed by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, in his book The Long Tail, “perfected the process of manufacturing blockbusters. The resounding commercial success of teen pop — from Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys — showed that the business had its finger firmly on the pulse of American youth culture … their marketing departments could now predict and create demand with scientific precision.”

Then came the burst of dot-com bubble, rise of Napster, and peer-to-peer file trading networks. The fool-proof plan for creating a music mega-star began to splinter. Music moguls poured millions into lawsuits but the tide of music culture had long since turned, leaving executives disillusioned and bitter with the industry they knew so well. One by one they paid their respects (however vehemently) and either adapted or deserted.

Last week, Tommy Mottola, former head of Sony Music Entertainment who signed and developed artists like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, the Dixie Chicks, and Mark Anthony, announced he had officially set his sights on a new industry: art. Over the fourth of July holiday, he opened a gallery in East Hampton that boasted of a hodgepodge of blue-chip works by artists like Warhol, Picasso, de Kooning, Alex Katz, Leger, and Rauschenberg. Mottola told the Wall Street Journal that “there’s never been a serious gallery out here in the Hamptons … I thought, with my knowledge and experience, I’d like to try my hand at it.”

More to the point, the music industry has ceased to make this titan any richer: “The music business, as far as the sale of physical music, is at the end,” said Mottola. “People’s appetite for music, however, is probably more insatiable than ever before, but they just don’t want to pay for it.” The art business, however, “will never be at the end. That’s the beauty of this,” said Mottola, pointing to the walls of the gallery, “You can’t download this.”

Mottola went on to say that he plans to apply the skill set that made him a legend in the music industry — he is credited with transforming Sony into one of the most prosperous global music companies — to the art world. In other words, the mastermind of the blockbuster-making machine is moving his machine into a new terrain. “I have the ability to understand what makes artists tick, what’s in their psyche. I understand their emotions, can help them enhance their creativity and integrity. All those experiences and techniques are applicable to this … It would be the same as what every manager would do. What are the goals and desires and aspirations of the artist? You become the conduit to helping him achieve those goals, you’re providing a bigger platform.” Needless to say, the platform in question is the platform that, in Anderson’s words, “allowed the hit to be replicated on an industrial scale … the music itself, which was outsourced to a small army of professionals, hardly mattered.”

Let’s play pretend: Let’s say Mottola succeeds, let’s say the music mogul and his blockbuster-making machine is able to surpass even the success of a Larry Gagosian. His opening show clearly illustrated his interest in brand-name artists (can you get more cliché than Picasso, Warhol, and de Kooning?). It’s doubtful Mottola will linger in modern art for too long as it’s far more difficult and far less exciting to re-brand the dead. Which contemporary artists might he set his sights on then? Mottola’s affinity for A-listers is clear and he seems nonplussed that the giants of the art world are already well-represented: “Chamberlain just went to Pace from Gagosian and the de Kooning estate switched from Gagosian to Pace. It’s about developing relationships and credibility and integrity,” said Mottola. “If those people [artists] think a fresh new outlook and approach will help them, they’re in business.”

While transforming an artist into an icon of the art world is nothing new — gallerists have long done this — Mottola’s well-oiled blockbuster-making machine, that for nearly a decade presided over mainstream culture with complete abandon, has the potential to take this to an entirely new level. Where could this lead? How could one propel Jeff Koons in a way a Gagosian could not? Mottola is famous for leveraging the artists he represented to mainstream culture, often using consumerism as his vehicle. We might imagine then what a few A-list artists might look like when churned through Mottola’s star-manufacturing machine. Click through for an entirely facetious look at what the art world could become…

John Currin

Currin’s bombastic portraits merge the look of Renaissance painting with contemporary social and sexual themes and have routinely appealed to the art-world elite. As a Republican who treasures the finer things in life (see this New York Times feature about his extravagant house), it’s doubtful Currin would ever turn down a money-making venture. Perhaps vintage-style lunchboxes designed by Currin would be a hit?

Richard Prince

Prince is famous for appropriating advertising images as a way to highlight sexism and racism in mainstream culture. His work is subversive in the most hip of ways, and the artist has long tapped into the cultural zeitgeist with alarming precision. Most famous for his Marlboro man images, we might imagine … Richard Prince-designed nicotine patches?

Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin, 2000, ink-jet print. Photo courtesy of Christies

Perhaps the enfant terrible of the British art scene, Emin rose to fame both for her explicit, sexually harrowing art as well as her messy public persona that made the artist a fixture of the tabloids. She’s won the über-prestigious Turner Prize, was chosen to join the Royal Academy of Arts in London as a Royal Academician, represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, and has exhibited at nearly every major museum in the world. One of her most famous works, Bed, features the artist’s own bed complete with condoms and blood-stained sheets. Perhaps then a line of mattresses for Sealy?

Jeff Koons

As an art world mogul himself — famous for mass-reproducing animals and banal objects and turning enormous profit — a partnership with Mottola could either be explosively successful or completely unthinkable. Perhaps the Mottola machine could churn out… Jeff Koons-designed pet toys for Petco?

Takashi Murakami

Famous for bringing the manga figure to the art world, the King of the Superflat movement has embraced commercialism with a ravishing enthusiasm not seen since the days of Warhol’s Factory. While he’s created leather goods for Louis Vuitton, perhaps the Mottola touch could… secure him a contract at H&M?

Cindy Sherman

Known for taking photographs of herself in various guises as a way to investigate the way women are represented in mainstream culture, Cindy Sherman presides over the feminist art movement. What then, would be more fitting than… a Cindy Sherman costume line for Party City?

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst, This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home, 1996. Photo courtesy of Artchive.com

Famous for his deathly-looking vitrines that feature animals suspended in formaldehyde, a liquid that looks like water, Hirst is Britain’s richest living artist. A little help from Mottola might even make him wealthier… how about a line of mini-vitrines — in other words, snow globes?

Richard Serra

The minimalist sculptor and video artist famous for his fearsome, enormous sculptures that often sparked public controversy probably never saw himself with the capacity to create kids toy. But what would be more fitting than… a line for Lego? While his curvacious sculptures might seem to resist the colored blocks, if Escher did it (see below), no doubt Serra can, too.