Marketing Mondays: Chihuly, Inc.

Dale Chihuly sculptures in the Phoenix Botanical Gardens, above, and the New York Botanical Garden

“If we measure an artist's importance by the number of museum exhibitions, books, articles and television appearances he has, Seattle glass guru Dale Chihuly is right up there with the greats.

“His work is in the collection of most every U.S. art museum you can think of, as well as many abroad. Museum exhibitions of his work circulate continually and stacks of hefty coffee-table books praise his talents. And who hasn't seen one of those often-aired documentaries about him on PBS?

“But what many don't know is that Chihuly — a Northwest icon who has built a multimillion-dollar business — generates the bulk of that exposure himself.
“All that publicity has inflated the public notion of Chihuly's status in the art world.”

Thus opens the Inside The Glass Empire, the 3000-plus-word article on Chihuly, by Sheila Farr and Susan Kelleher for The Seattle Times, published April 29, 2010.

In essence Dale Chihuly is Marketing Mondays on steroids. Indeed, his steroids are on steroids, which in turn are pumped up by, well, steroids. He’s doing what thousands of artists do, but doing it like all of them at once. Imagine having 150 people working for you, so that the more they make, the bigger you get. He’s doing everything we learned to be afraid of in art school. He’s been called a “glasshole,” with a business model likened to Thomas Kincade’s (though in museum shops rather than malls). And yet, he’s the one with the brand and the bucks. And he’s employing artists, craftspeople, factory workers, photographers, photo archivers, a studio manager, accountants and independent contractors, a boon to creative-economy folks who might otherwise be unemployed in these difficult economic times.

"No one's ever signed my name for anything that I've made, including the editions, including the prints, the glass, the drawings," says glassblower Dale Chihuly.  But that doesn’t mean he actually, made the pieces. “"The last time I blew glass was a couple years ago," he said. "I just don't do it."
I love the idea of artists taking control of their careers. In fact, I'm kind of in awe at what Chihuly has been able to do. Not that I would want that for myselfI like making art far more than doing the business of artbut it is pretty amazing, even if undertones of distasteful and overtones of skeevy are part of the Chihuly scent that reaches my nostrils. His approach, like that of Murakami, Koons and Kostabi, is more suited for mass productionwhich, in fact, it isthan for the magical thing that happens when the electrical impulses of firing neurons work their way out of your body and into whatever unique object they will themselves to be. 

Unlike Kincade's work, Chihuly's can be quite beautiful. Do we applaud this artist, a one-time leader of the studio glass movement, for his artistic vision? Or for his career chutzpah? Do we secretly wish we had a tiny fraction of his business savvy or do we disdain him for "selling out"? Is his story a cautionary tale of becoming "Art, Inc." or a model of how to make it in the art world?

Today’s MM assignment: Read the above-noted article on him in the Seattle Times and then meet me back here so that we can discuss. 

21 comments: said...

This article raise very important questions like: is it art if it's not made like we think art should be made? Is it art if the artist says it is art? is it art if it borrows design elements?

I have always thought Chihuly, Inc. as a design house. and when we see motorcycles, guitars, fashion all in important museum shows why are we SO concerned about Chihuly shows.

Blowing glass on a scale lager than drinking glass mostly requires at least two people.( My husband tried his hand at this.) Blowing glass is a team effort even on an "individual"

Chihuly learned to set up a glass design house in the traditions of the Venetian glass factories and he deserves to have his name on it. If we buy a Venini piece designed by Mendini blown by a craftsman who remains unnamed do we complain? And guess what - Venini pieces are in the Met, MOMA, Guggenheim and art museums through Italy and the world.

annell4 said...

Who can say? But it isn't what I would want for my life. I'm not sure he would fit my definition of an artist, at least not what I would want to be. But I will say, he is giving of him time. He came to Taos and helped the young people set up a studio. That was pretty amazing.

LXV said...

Well, more power to him. I actually enjoy a lot of his work, as overblown as it is (pun not intended). Some of it is a bit coarse, but in general it's great big eye candy and if that stimulates the the sensibilities of the general public, then good.

I cannot personally aspire to his modus operandi; my temperament doesn't allow it: too much frenzy. And his comment—"I was always more interested in what came out of the ovens the next day than I was in the process of making it," —is exactly the opposite of how I feel making art. For me, process is everything. It is the journey. Once the thing is done, I become a little uneasy. I stay connected as long as I am working on it, but then I have to sort of abandon it. The way my mother had her ten children. I think she was more interested in being pregnant than in the results of her creation. Not a nurturer.

It's very selfish, but I really do feel like the vessel through which the thing is born. I rarely sign my work. And promoting or selling it is painful. I just keep looking forward to making the next thing.

Thanks Joanne. A thought-provoking read.

Kate P. Miller said...

Thanks for this, very compelling. I always enjoyed Chihuly's work when seen in a big space, like a swanky hotel lobby and his process is fascinating, his balls, big, but... I always have a problem with any art that basically doesnt move, it arrives at a point of success and then repeats itself, when does art become production and is it then still art, for myself to call it art, it needs to be pushing edges, personal, social , whatever. LIke I said his stuff is beautiful and I admire his work but, like pop music stars, when you find a good thing you need to push its edge, not just keep pumping out more, unless what you desire is to make stuff, so then your a factory not an artist.

Kate P. Miller said...

In Grad school, a great professor,Mernet Larson who told me that when I reach a place in my work where it was always comfortable I should move on to the next phase or tangent, she said, "if youre not feeling anxious, youre not discovering or searching anything, youre just repeating what you already know"
Still you have to admire him as a businessman and in this day and age when artists are having such a hard time its difficult to judge someone so sucessful

Anonymous said...

Right on Dale !

On a certain level I know were he is coming from . For 30 years I have made Precision Metal Objects, most of the time a customer gives me a blue print. Once I figure it out in my head how it should be made .I am done .In my head I have already moved on to the next job.

The last thing I want to do is make it, in fact for me to go out in the shop and have and do the job would be torture.

Its the same way with my metal sculptures.

Anonymous said...

Living in Seattle in the early 90's, it was quite popular amongst the artist crowd to be a Chihuly "hater". I could never decide what I thought.

These are the things that I can't get out of my mind:

He does bring art awareness to the general public. His glass museum in Tacoma and the public art "glass bridge" are beautiful and a great asset to the city. Many people who aren't interested in art know/like him. Maybe he is a gateway artist for many people.

He is very generous with his foundations etc.

He does employ a lot of artists. That sort of "guild/ apprentice" situation exposes young artists to working on a grand scale. It also exposes them to the business aspect of art that is often missing in formal education.

I saw the show at SAM in 93 and it was AMAZING. A true block buster. Was it thought provoking like Judy Chicago's "dinner party"? No but... it was amazing.

He is a marketing machine. I wish I had half his energy and confidence. I saw him in a restaurant once and it was obvious that he was there to eat but, was taking the opportunity to sell them art for the space.

Do I want that massed produced, frenzied sort of lifestyle for myself. Not really. I agree with you, Joan. There is a sort of sparkly energy that happens in the studio with the artist and the object.

All in all, I think we can all take something from the Chihuly model and adapt it to our own businesses.

Kye Sangha said...

I admire a marketing machine-it takes balls to be successful. And I like a lot of his stuff (the term eye candy is very apt), his museum installations are fun to experience and a huge thumbs up for putting the Seattle glass scene on the map.
But he has stopped evolving, or at least it seems he's been in the same place for a very long time. I don't see anything wrong with where he's at in his career, or how he's handling the production of his pieces. It's what artists do, if they want the big bucks. Let us not forget that many of the old masters had studios & hype not unlike Chihuly's current models.
Make your choices, pay your prices.
And hey, he's not dead yet.Things could still change.

EPGoldenberg said...

Dale had a show here at the de Young and Kenneth Baker, (our last remaining art critic) panned the show claiming it was all pretty colors and no content. This article brought even more people to the show. And yes they were selling the "studio" pieces at the museum shop, for $5000. I agree that Dale Inc, is making so much work that he will devalue his own work eventually...yes male, aggressive marketing out of control...interesting article!

Susan Schwalb said...

I just saw the Chihuly exhibit at MFA/Boston. Some of the work is really wonderful, some much less interesting. It doesn't nurture my own work but is is fun, colorful delightful work. But I agree with some of the other posts that the hands on process is what art making is all about for me. Last year when I had some hand issues I asked my assistant to help carve some lines on my panels and I did the painting and silverpoint overlay. But I didn't like the process. I will stick to making my own work thank you and if hand issues come up I will change my work.

Tamar said...

Hmmm. Although I don't find his work nourishing after the initial wow factor of what is possible with glass, there is much I admire about Chihuly's business model. He is clearly quite driven, compulsively controlling, and his business provides employment for many craftspeople. But I see him as a businessman, not a visionary artist. He is not the first artist to take charge of the whole package, rather than sharing the profits with intermediaries.

The fact that he manufactured his own reputation by engaging in extraordinary successful marketing--no one is forced to purchase the work produced by Chihuly, Inc.

Does the absence of the artists' hand in the making of the art make it less valuable, does the mass production of the work make it less valuable -- well that's for the people who plunk down the cash to decide.

Does Chihuly, Inc produce great art? Is he a great artist? In my opinion, no and no. But I do appreciate that he gets people to go to museums for entertainment instead of playing video games.

Kesha Bruce said...

The thing I always find so interesting about these discussions is all the mixed messages:

As artists we're supposed to "put ourselves out there" and promote out work, but then on the other hand we're supposed to reign it back in and respectfully wait for "critical" approval and recognition?

So my question is---what if that approval from curators, critics etc never arrives? Then what?

I have no intention of spending a lifetime crying sour grapes, so to speak.

So, in spite of myself, I'm firmly planted on team Chihuly.

*double thumbs up*

Mery Lynn said...

The aesthetics model most of us were taught is serious art is real art. Ideas are what are important. While I don't consider him a great artist, I do wonder why his work is craft and Flavin's work is art. If Chihuly worked in strict geometric forms with a severely limited palette rather than curvilinear with many colors, would the work seem more like serious art?
Interesting post, Joanne.

Unknown said...

"... serious art is real art". Yes, that is what we are to believe, that is what is taught or perhaps better to say 'pushed.' Of course, this leads to all the questions that are heard over and over e.g. what is art, etc.?

What we have here is the creating of objects declared art and the very clever marketing of those objects as art. I suppose we can call this the art of marketing. Regardless of what we may think of the work itself, I say more power to him, to all of them that do and have done it.

kim matthews said...

Joanne, this reminds me of your earlier post "The ___ Artist." I think that if his work were properly contextualized as craft or design, people would have fewer problems with Chihuly. That he's an "artist" for people who have little understanding of or deep interest in art is chafing, but then again, those folks are never going to be my clients and he's employing a lot of people and bringing some sort of aesthetic experience to the masses, even if I find it hackneyed. I also think it's unfair to compare him to Kinkade--Kinkade is a crook; Chihuly is just an opportunist.

diana green said...

I was quite a jazz hound in the 70s and 80s. I remember how scandalized some of my friends were when George Benson started making overtly commercial albums. Benson's response was "look, when I was the darling of the critics, I had creditors hounding me. Now critics can't stand me, but my house is paid off and I can put my kids through college, and I'm still making music I like."
I agree that commercialization has its down side, but the artist is answerable to themselves, their followers and the critics, in that order. If Chihuly can self-market to that extent, and keep it going, more power to him. He is not answerable to his critics.
There's a large Chihuly sun in the foyer of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It cheers me every time I go there.

Gary J. Noland Jr. said...

Very interesting article. As artists we are taught about integrity of the work and being true to ourselves. We are never really taught how to be great business people. Kudos to Dale. You may not like his work or how he conducts his business, but you have to respect the fact that he knows how to get his work seen and sold.

Yasmin Sabur said...

No problems with Mr. Chihuly, his art, or his business practices.

Interesting that the post immediately below this one is on the textile works of Louise Bourgeoise. (Would this be intentional?) It is my understanding that Miz Louise did not sit with bent back hand stitching this work.

Craft is back breaking work. Physically demanding, and often hazardous. Creative intelligence doesn't, hopefully, desert us as we age, but the physical ability to continue practicing our craft may.

Mr. Chihuly is smart, smart, smart to employ the traditional marketing and apprenticeship model of many historically successful artists.

Joanne Mattera said...

Yasmin and others,

The issue for me is not that Chihuly does what he does. It's the over-the-top degree to which he does it. (He is, of course, entitled to do whatever he wishes, and to whatever degree.) I noted that his production has created jobs for many artists, artisans and other creative and business types.

Bourgeois did indeed have stitchers working for her, and in her younger years was personally prolific, but as far as I know, she did not turn out her work by the factory load, or create her own books, TV programs and museum exhibitions.

Tina Mammoser said...

Is there really any one model for success in the art world? I don't think so. Is there one way of creating that imply the artwork has more or less aesthetic value?

The comparisons to Kinkade made me think. But there's a major difference to me personally - Chihuly's installations are mind-blowingly beautiful. When his work was shown at Kew Gardens in London I literally sat and cried for a bit about half way through. Even if you're not emotionally moved you can't deny the impact his glass installations make on a landscape or cityscape. Not sure a Kinkade can ever have that effect on an environment and community of people (residents or visitors). Does a similarity in production approach matter?

Whether it's him personally, his staff, or a manufacturing plant... he/his company brings beautiful things into the world. Not all art needs to be deep and meaningful, that would be a very narrow view of art.

At what point do point the finger printmakers who don't pull their own prints? (Warhol for a start) Or sculptors who cast work? Painters who don't use brushes? Where will digital output fall into the equation in future? It's a slippery slope.

Luann Udell said...

What bugs me about Chihuly is not his business model (which is his choice, not for me to criticize); nor his aesthetic or lack of evolution (which means he may now be more of a production craftsperson than an artist now), or the fact that most of the publicity is his own effort.

I don't find much of a difference between him and Thomas Kincade--we may pride ourselves on having 'better taste' than people who love Kincade, but fact is, some people (a lotta people, actually) love Kincade's work.

The issue I have is two-fold:

There is no transparency in Chihuly's business model. He is photographed doing the work. He doesn't, and hasn't, for years. (A glassblower friend said you simply can't blow glass with one working eye.) If I buy a product with a designer's name on it, I know it has been designed by either the designer or their team--not a one-of-a-king original made by the designer himself. Most people who purchase a Chihuly assume he made it himself, with a little help.

Second, there are tons of extremely talented glass people who worked for Mr. Chihuly for years, and helped develop the designs Mr. C is famous for. When they left the studio to go out on their own, to continue the work THEY had developed, they were accused of being Chihuly copycats.

And that's the downside of that business model. I like that Joanne pointed out in the article that the model has given hundreds of talented people a livelihood, doing what they love. And they had that choice, of doing their own work or sublimating their own creative vision in the service of another's vision.

But when those same people go unacknowledged and ignored, or even misjudged, for the sake of a marketing dream machine that just feels....wrong.

If it's a glass design 'house', then say that, acknowledge that. Otherwise, it's caveat emptor.

Still, in the end, I agree--we all have our choices what we do with our skills and creativity, with how we make a living, and what we buy and what we consider art. I know it's not black and white, but gosh, sometimes there's so much gray! :^)