Tracking the Buzz on Art Licensing

Discovering trends in the art licensing business—seeing what’s new and meeting and greeting new contacts—is the main attraction at Surtex® and the Licensing Expo, the country’s two most important shows for art licensing. The 2012 editions of both events were well attended and upbeat, with exhibitors and attendees growing their contact lists and nurturing potential business opportunities.

As a veteran trade show attendee and exhibitor, let me start by giving you my impressions of the shows. Then let’s go for a deeper dive and review the trends that were spotted along the way (and maybe uncover a few new ones)!

Surtex—The Marketplace for Original Art & Design
There was considerable buzz in the aisles at Surtex (www.surtex.com), the key trade show for the art and design market, held May 20-22 at New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Center. “Attendance was exceptionally strong in both quality and quantity,” reflects show manager Penny Sikalis. “With a 20 percent increase in the number of attendees over 2011, the composition of attendees remained strongest in the manufacturing sector, which comprised 60 percent of those attending. Market leaders and product developers have told us many times over [that] when they look for the newest trends, they find them at Surtex, which is why they return year after year.”

But a show’s foot traffic is far from the only indicator of its success. The aisles full of art directors and product developers searching the booths for what they wanted (and finding it!); the steady streams of attendees looking at art on the walls, in books and on iPads; and the deals put into place in the weeks following the show all point to Surtex as a vital sales and marketing event for anyone interested in licensing his or her art.

From a personal perspective, the art and designs I saw at the 2012 Surtex show were probably the best I’ve seen in several years. They were fresh and dynamic, which could be a sign that the economy is improving and manufacturers have begun demanding something new… or maybe it’s just that art runs in cycles and we happen to be at the apex of one. Maybe it’s both. Regardless, it was great to see!

Licensing Expo—The world’s Brand and Property Marketplace
With only a couple of weeks between the two showes, there was little time to recover from Surtex before it was time to head to Las Vegas for the Licensing Expo (www.licensingexpo.com), held June 12-14 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. The Licensing Expo brings together retailers, manufacturers and marketers from all around the world, all on the hunt for new properties and brands. Whether you’re looking to spot trends, build strategic partnerships, secure promotional tie-ins or take your property worldwide, this is where it can all begin!

Considered the world’s largest licensing venue, most of the major brands were in attendance: Disney, Sony, Warner Bros., NASCAR, Mattel, Nickelodeon, NBC… the list goes on. Major art brands such as Thomas Kinkade, Wyland, Norman Rockwell and the Victoria and Albert Museum were on hand as well.

As with any trade show, the key to exhibitor success at the Licensing Expo is driving traffic to one’s booth. The busiest booths in the show’s dedicated art and design section were those with great presentation; it was easy to see what they were about from a quick glance, and every person working welcomed attendees with a smile. They set appointments in advance, sent out invitations and marketing materials and had eye-catching press kits in the press office to entice key editors to their booths.

“We had some great meetings,” says Cathy Heck of Cathy Heck Studio (www.cathyhecknurseryart.com), one of the Licensing Expo’s stand-out exhibitors. “I think that sending out our pre-show cards to companies with product categories that make sense for our work made a big difference. Now it’s all in the follow up!”

Traffic at this year’s Licensing Expo was on par with past years: Very heavy the first day, then gradually declining over the next two. Smart exhibitors anticipated this pattern and scheduled appointments for days two or three, leaving day one open to devote their full attention to greeting potential clients.

The buzz at Licensing Expo—before, during and after the show—was full of excitement and opportunity. Both the artists who exhibited and those who simply walked the show were exhilarated by who and what they saw.

Trending Now
So now that the dust has settled on Surtex and the Licensing Expo, what have they taught us about emerging trends?

Part of the fun of Surtex’s event is that it runs concurrently with the National Stationery Show, which gives attendees the chance to go from one show to the other and experience the intersection of art and design firsthand. What was hot at Surtex and its sister show? A few observations:

  • Vintage. Think turn of the 20th century—the 1910s and ’20s. Scrolls, swirls, Victorian-era images, pastels, sepia tones and pieces with a touch of the Parisian all made their presence known. Nostalgia. Now come forward a few decades and think mid-century modern; you might even call it “retro.” Many pieces drew from the simpler aesthetic of the ’50s and ’60s, using blocks of color and geometric designs.
  • Humor. Whether infused into the design or the end product itself, humor—some quite outrageous and fun—was around every corner.
  • Multicultural. Surtex had an international flair, courtesy of the many exhibiting artists influenced by art and design from places all over the world, including Mexico, India, South America and Cuba.
  • Letterpress. Surtex was home to several typographically-inclined artists who make letterpress the heart of their designs; in fact, artists and companies that weren’t using letterpress in some way were the ones who stood out!

Many of the trends that reared their heads at Surtex held true at the Licensing Expo, even when it came to big entertainment brands: Disney’s focus on their beloved princesses and fairies, Warner Bros.’ drive for their new Superman film and the continued representation of Looney Tunes and Batman all hearken back to an earlier era. In terms of art and design, the following Expo essentials made an impression:

  • International Licensing. Just as Surtex went international with its art, the Licensing Expo went international with its business. More and more companies—both those exhibiting and those walking the aisles—hailed from outside North America, giving artists a real opportunity to reach a global audience.
  • Character and Concept Art. More than just a focus, one could say that this is almost required to get noticed at the Licensing Expo. Usually fun, and sometimes irreverent, it’s always good in terms of grabbing attention.
  • Mainstays. There is some art that is simply understood and loved for what it is. Art from Debbie Mumm, Mary Engelbreit, Thomas Kinkade and Norman Rockwell have transcended the “trend” label and continue to sell year after year.

Aside from the art on display, what is great about Surtex and the Licensing Expo are the educational programs and seminars they offer each year. If you’re new to the industry, want a refresher course or require more detailed information about a specific aspect of the business, there are always classes to keep you informed. Surtex even had four of the world’s leading trend research companies delivering ongoing presentations right on the show floor! Though it can be hard to pull yourself away from the abundance of art on display at the booths, the many educational opportunities offered by these shows are absolutely worth putting on your schedule.

There is, of course, a difference between a trend and a fad. Being a “trendy” artist, or intentionally setting out to create the next big thing, doesn’t usually lead to any lasting success. Occasionally, though, something that starts as a fad transitions to become part of the fabric of our lives in a very natural way. One of those trends looming on the horizon is iPhoneography; with most of us having access to high-performing digital cameras at any time, it’s easier than ever to create pieces of art from high-resolution photos, whether by turning them into a collage, embellishing them with a mixed media style or doing anything else that captures your imagination. Whether iPhoneography will gain a foothold in the art licensing world remains to be seen, but this current culture-becoming-art is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

However, you don’t have to go to a trade or art show to discover what’s happening in the marketplace. Just keep your eyes open. If you see a particular subject or style popping up over and over again, make a note of it. Trade magazines, fashion and home décor publications, Etsy, Pinterest, the mall and even your local grocery store are all great places for trend-spotting.

In conclusion, there are many artists who see the viability of maximizing their creativity and enter the licensing business—and many manufacturers and retailers who want the freshness that well-crafted artwork can bring to their products. No matter if you are an artist, manufacturer, gallery owner or art collector, the business of art licensing has an impact. So look around… and see if you can spot a trend in the making!

About the author:
With a career that spans 30 years, ABN Contributing Editor Linda Mariano is a leader in marketing, brand management, e-commerce and promotion initiatives. Through her company, LM² Art Marketing & Licensing (LM2ArtMarketing.com), Mariano brings her expertise and years of experience to help artists and art industry leaders set and achieve high goals. She can be reached at LMariano85@yahoo.com.

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