“Downtown 88”: The Art of Business, After the Show

In April, Chicago-based artist Hebru Brantley hosted “Downtown 88” at the Lacuna Artist Loft’s Ultra Gallery. The event revealed new works by the artist during a private dinner for collectors and VIPs in the early evening, and the space transformed into a party that night for a more expansive group of energized young professionals. The event drew a crowd of 1000+ attendees and featured live music and entertainment, including fire-breathing acrobats, break-dancers, and iconic hip-hop deejay and lyricist Q-tip.

“Downtown 88” was reminiscent of the artist’s partnerships with brands like Red Bull, Bombay Sapphire, and Skyy Vodka for artist competitions, advertising campaigns, and related marketing events last year, which has undoubtedly brought the Hebru Brantley brand (Hebru Brand) visibility on both the global art and commercial consumer markets. With sneaker deals, album covers, celebrity commissions, international art fairs, and more involvement with partners from the corporate sector to come in 2013, it should go without saying that Brantley’s approach to branding is a bit of an anomaly for a young, black male artist in Chicago. In essence, the visibility afforded to the Hebru Brand through these networks and partnerships have blurred the lines between audiences/consumers, cultural producers/commercial consumer brands, as well as arts/business.

Brantley’s strategy seems to involve appealing to dynamic, urban consumer class that recognizes the interconnectedness of popular, material, and visual culture. This approach to branding suggests that people buy brands, and that brand equity is achieved by going beyond simple awareness in order to communicate the brand identity to audiences. This then leads to validation in which value and audience are connected—the question is no longer “Who is the artist?” but rather “What is the artist about?”

As an attempt to answer this question, I sat down with Brantley’s manager, Pia Johnson, to discuss the complexities of the “Downtown 88” event within the framework of the contemporary art exhibition or gallery opening. Thus, it seems that this willingness to redesign business structures, processes, and norms has produced a powerful competitive advantage for Brantley as an emerging ‘street’ artist in Chicago, while also fostering a management approach conducive to growth and experimentation:

BN: Talk a little bit about the inspiration for these new works and how you begin pulling things together from a brand manager/dealer/gallerist/consultant position when the artist has an idea?

PJ: In particular, with Downtown 88, the party came before the work. The work was a continued idea to have the entire party under the influence of “things past”…. “Downtown 88” was a night in celebration of Hebru’s 32nd Birthday, as well as a moment to celebrate other greats that have come before, in music, art and sports. Being a child of the 80’s, the year 88’ for Hebru is considered to be as powerful as infinity. A collective moment in history, where all things either came together or fell apart, where his memories begin. Memories that vividly include Michael Jordan & Mike Tyson’s early years in sports, to the deaths of Jean Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. “Downtown 88” [was intended to be] a reflection of these greats, with art that re-appropriates their work, to music and dance that reflects the energy of the times.

BN: Hebru Brand productions often blur the lines between art and live entertainment through fusing art, live music, and performances and “Downtown 88” was the biggest example of that yet. In what ways do you ensure that new collectors can engage with the artworks so that they actually sell?

PJ: Most of the work is generally sold before the actual event. We have shows simply for everyone to appreciate the work. However, our collectors constantly purchase.

BN: Hebru’s work is very different than the stuff you see in the West Loop galleries, which has encouraged an entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and innovation. Has the Chicago art scene paved the way for the unique business model that defines the Hebru Brand?

PJ: I don’t think any “Business” model is readily followed in the art world. A lot of people crinkle their noses at the business aspect and the art of functionally bringing in dollars no matter if on merchandise or art. I think the art scene in Chicago will get on the bandwagon soon. Understanding that you can’t always produce art for arts sake…how do you support yourself, have a work space or even purchase materials if there are no dollars coming in the door?

BN: All shows and events are hosted from the studio/office/exhibition space in Lacuna Artists Lofts. What are the next steps for Ultra Gallery?

PJ: A lot more group exhibitions and collaborations. One idea we are working on is how we can efficiently exist within the art/gallery world BUT not take the place of a museum. Not just having work on the walls alone. But some way people can interact and have a relationship with the work. It’s all in the making but soon to come.

[Unfortunately, the awesome images that were intended to accompany this post have not been attached due to the absence of an “Add Media” option in WordPress. Thus, you are strongly encouraged to view the artist’s work by other means. Sorry folks, blame me not.]

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