When it comes to working in creative industries, bridging the gap between the artistic and business aspects of the field can be an unsteady task. For more than 30 years, powerhouse agency Art + Commerce has been consistently addressing this very notion, supporting and fostering the careers of photographers, stylists, creative directors, hair stylists, and make-up artists. Known for its innovative championing of fledgling talent – who often evolve into widely praised masters of their field – and indeed as one of the first agencies to represent hairstylists and make-up artists as they are today, Art + Commerce’s roster of artists is in itself an insightful look at the agency’s vital and exciting work. Photographers include Larry Fink, Craig McDean, Steven Meisel, Paolo Roversi and Sølve Sundsbø; Guido and Luke Hersheson feature in the list of hairstylists, and Peter Philips amongst the make-up artists – and these heavyweight names make up a small portion of Art + Commerce’s register.
In celebration of Art + Commerce’s three decades, the agency is presenting an exhibition of work by over 35 of its artists. “What we are doing is celebrating the past, the present, and the future, and they all coexist in this one exhibition,” says Philippe Brutus on the phone from New York, where Art + Commerce: The Exhibition will be held. The show, which has been a year in the making, “is a true mix of everything that is happening right now, along with the beginnings of Art + Commerce,” continues Nadine Javier-Shah. Javier-Shah and Brutus are the managing directors and co-presidents of Art + Commerce, and integral to the agency, having started there 20 and 17 years ago respectively. “Working with images on a daily basis and being so familiar with the agency’s archive made this whole process very exciting,” Brutus enthuses. “One thing that we hope that this exhibition will bring to life, is the incredible consistency that this agency has had for the last 35 years. Starting from the early 80s to now, the one common thread is the fact that we represent visual artists, who have their own voice, and we believe in them and their work in the same way that we did back in the 1980s.”
A mixed media exhibition held in an expansive industrial space, the show will pull from Art + Commerce’s vast and impressive archive – Javier-Shah is quick to note that “you could spend more than a year trying to curate a show that has such a massive collection of work from such varied artists” – to explore its impact both historical and ongoing. It’s here that the agency looked to its Image Archive, an entity committed to propelling the legacy of today’s working photographers forwards, as well as ensuring the opuses of image-makers of the past are not forgotten, to illustrate the exhibition, because Art + Commerce: The Exhibition features work by the creators of today alongside iconic photographers of the 20th century. The Image Archive is home, for example, to the estates of Guy Bourdin, Erwin Blumenfeld, Robert Mapplethorpe and Walter Pfeiffer.
While Brutus and Javier-Shah are steadfast in keeping specific elements of the show under wraps – Brutus emphasises keenly that “the element of surprise is very exciting to us” – they hinted at some of the seminal artists that will be exhibited, work which they themselves were astounded by when combing through Art + Commerce’s Image Archive. “Looking, for example, at what Mapplethorpe did specifically for fashion – being able to look at that and remember all of the things that happened, when they happened, how they happened,” Javier-Shah describes. “Most of the work we are incredibly familiar with, but it was when we had the chance to hit the pause button and just appreciate what has taken place; to be able to carve out what has paved the way for everything else that we do.” When it came to inviting artists to participate in the exhibition, Javier-Shah and Brutus were equally as careful with the show’s specifics. “It is extraordinary to have that kind of faith from our roster of talent,” says Javier-Shah. “To know that all of the artists signed up because they wanted to be a participant, in an exhibition that was going to be about Art + Commerce, not knowing exactly how their work was going to be displayed – I think that shows quite a lot about the kind of relationship that we have.”
Alongside the exhibition will be a pop-up shop stocking limited-edition and exclusive merchandise, much of which was created specifically for the occasion. “The idea behind the pop-up shop is the fact that our artists create so much more than what is on the printed page,” says Javier-Shah. The list of things on offer in the store is astounding in and of itself: scarves designed by M/M Paris in collaboration with Kanye West; T-shirts by Stephen Shore and Uniqlo (signed by the photographer, too); Dior scarves featuring exquisite illustrations by Mats Mustafsen; plus a book to accompany the exhibition, created by Art + Commerce in conjunction with the event. “The book was the surprisingly thrilling part,” says Javier-Shah. “Going through the pages and realising that most of these artists, at the time that they were working on an image, had no idea that it was going to be iconic. It was just a vision that they had, something that they wanted to execute, that in the moment they were just creative people working together and coming up with something that they loved. Not noticing that it was going to stand the test of time and that we would still be looking at it as one of the most iconic images of the entire industry.”
Art + Commerce: The Exhibition runs from September 9 – 12, 2017 at Skylight Modern, New York.