The Art of Making Millions with Murakami

Author: Jin Heo, Graphics: Anna Szymoniak

BRB Bottomline: Step into the vibrant world of Takashi Murakami, the Japanese artist who has not only revolutionized modern painting but also strategically paved his way into entrepreneurial fame. Learn about Murakami’s pivotal role in reshaping contemporary notions of what it means to be a successful artist and businessman. 

The Business of a High Art Empire

At the crossroads where art and commerce intersect, few figures loom as large as Takashi Murakami, the mastermind behind a multimillion-dollar high art empire. Murakami’s indelible impact isn’t just confined to galleries and museums; the artist’s unique style has extended into mainstream recognition through iconic collaborations in pop culture. From designing Kanye West’s 2007 Graduation album cover and partnering with Messi for UNICEF to creating a Google Solstice design and leaving a lasting mark on fashion through collaborations with Supreme and Louis Vuitton, Murakami has seamlessly woven his “Superflat” art style into the fabric of global pop culture. Murakami’s Superflat aesthetic, characterized by bold colors, flattened perspectives, and a combination of high and low Japanese art influences, serves as the cornerstone of the artist’s commercial success and has played a significant role in his rise to prominence.

Cultural Capital: Murakami’s Formula for Success

Murakami is not merely an artistic visionary; he is an accomplished entrepreneur who founded the Hiropon Factory – a venture that defied traditional artistic avenues through its pioneering marketing strategies. Murakami’s business-oriented judgments paved the way for a new group of artists who not only create but also commodify their art. Beginning to work on commissioned designs for luxury brands and celebrities in 2003, Murakami’s forward thinking is evident in the remarkable success of the highest price ever paid for a Murakami work, a staggering $15.1 million for “My Lonesome Cowboy” (2008), sold at auction. Beyond the canvas, Murakami’s story is one of a captivating journey through the convergence of commercial success, high art, and cultural influence, making him a major figure in the pantheon of contemporary business creatives.

Image 1 (Getty/Julien M. Hekimian): Murakami at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2018.

Murakami’s first move was to challenge the conventional and romanticized image of the ‘starving artist’ in pursuit of pure creativity, much of which stemmed from the Japanese art world. He positioned art as a viable business by asserting that the ability to sell and manage art was just as important, if not more important, than the act of creation itself, citing himself as evidence that financial success and artistic integrity could coexist. His assertion that “you cannot create an art piece unless you know how to make and sell it…you cannot continue creating art without a sense of business or management” is a response to the new demands of the contemporary art world that he was able to realize early on. 

Murakami was able to act on these demands by first structuring his studio as a business. At Hiropon, he utilized the atelier system, traditionally reserved for entertainment like anime and manga, which involves trained assistants collaborating under Murakami’s direction for mass-marketed projects, where the final artwork is attributed to the original artist. Murakami’s adoption of this collaborative model aligns with Howard Becker’s concept of “collectives” from his renowned book “Art Worlds,” where he conceives that art must be viewed as a collective action in order to reach financial success. 

Becker’s exploration of the three elements of the art market industry further sheds light on Murakami’s business acumen. Art, according to Becker, is a collective effort spanning production, distribution, and consumption. Murakami’s atelier system epitomizes this collective approach, with artists, craftspeople, and other stakeholders contributing to the creation and promotion of his art. In navigating the book’s distribution systems of self-sufficiency, sponsorship, and public sales, Murakami’s cross-border collaborations extend beyond the art world into commercial fields through his openness to the public, which contributed to his commercial successes in both primary and secondary art markets.

These collaborations marked Murakami’s departure from the “snobbery” of a traditional art scene. Maintaining a certain level of exclusivity with a high regard for the classical, Japanese art at his time was valued for its reserved nature of traditional aesthetics and the mastery of the technique it required. Murakami’s divergence from this and openness to collaboration with other industries not only garnered him international attention but also contributed to a global revaluation of what constitutes high art. He cited Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons as inspiration, two artists who had set precedents in transforming art into luxury commodities. 

Image 2 (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images): Friend and past collaborator of Murakami Kanye West sports a 2000s Alzer 80 trunk from the Takashi Murakami x Louis Vuitton collection.

Murakami’s Vision and Impact on the Market

Commercialization became Murakami’s tool for making art accessible to a broader audience, democratizing art in the process. His works have been transformed into a wide array of products, from online prints to merchandise such as t-shirts and plushies in stores like Zumiez and Pacsun. This deliberate move towards commercialization challenged the elitist perception of art and brought it into the lives of everyday people. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Murakami recalls working with gallerists in the United States as “the moment that my perception of the art world really shifted.” He furthered, “I saw the difference between the real art scene and the one I had left in Japan: It’s a business.” This philosophy reflects Murakami’s conviction that art should not exist in isolation from the commercial aspects that sustain it. 

Murakami was able to act on his belief by capitalizing on the concept that art is an investment object. In this system, the artist’s role is in the production of publicly distributed art while specialized middlemen manage the distribution system, determining art prices through the supply-demand relationship. Murakami’s business acumen is evident in the creation of affordable derivatives of his art, continuous branding efforts, and his team’s management of the entire artistic business chain. This comprehensive approach extends beyond Murakami himself to include factory workers and salespeople that highlights the understanding that “the art world and the art market are overlapping and independent worlds.”

Murakami’s argument urges artists to be proactive participants in shaping their careers, challenging the archetype of the passive artist. In fact, in a modern landscape where technology, globalization, and consumer culture inevitably intersect with artistic expression, he argues that the artist cannot afford to be oblivious to the commercial aspects of their work anymore and must embrace this integration to not only produce meaningful work but ensure its visibility and sustainability.  

This proactive approach becomes particularly evident in the trajectory of Murakami’s own career and market influence. In 2007, Murakami sold 250 artworks with an average of $1.6 million per piece. When the contemporary art market reached a pinnacle in 2008, this marked an exceptional year for Murakami, according to Artnet’s market observations that illustrate a significant increase in the average price per piece sold to nearly $12 million. Despite the challenges induced by the global economic crisis that caused a drop to $3 million in 2009, by 2010, sales had recovered to $6 million, and, by both 2011 and 2013, average price per piece sold reached its peak of $14 million. 

Despite the current pop art market not experiencing the same level of acclaim as it did in 2008, Murakami’s art continues to demonstrate remarkable resilience. According to Artsy’s market analysis in November of 2023, Murakami still boasts an impressive 90.1% sell-through rate – which is the percentage of artworks that were successfully sold in comparison to the total number offered– and a significant 43% price over-estimate – which is a metric that measures the difference between the final auction price and the estimated value provided by the auction house–, attesting to the sustained consumer demand and market desirability of his pieces even in an evolving contemporary art landscape. 

Step inside Murakami’s exhibit on commercial setbacks and success at the Asian Art Museum [H2]

One of Takashi Murakami’s exhibitions was recently on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Titled “Unfamiliar People — Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego,” this showcase invited both seasoned art enthusiasts and those new to the scene alike to step inside Murakami’s world of vibrant imagination where monsters and human ego coexist, commenting on consumerism, desire, and the ever-changing relationship between art and society. 

Image 3 (Asian Art Museum): Unfamiliar People: Snow Crystals, 2020-2022 (left) and Unfamiliar People, 2020-2022 (right) at the Asian Art Museum.  

With a run until February 12th, 2024, the exhibit was also a collection of Murakami’s observations on the transformative influence of the virtual realm on our relationship with art, hinting at his past venture into the world of NFTs. When Murakami attempted to enter the NFT market in 2021, he encountered multiple commercial setbacks in which he faced near-bankruptcy in his production studio. His release of two NFT bodies named Clone X and Murakami.Flowers in collaboration with the virtual collectible company RTFKT resulted in huge success during its initial mint period, generating $20 million in its first week and increasing its value by 3696% from its mint price. However, soon after this early spike came a drastic drop in value, even prompting Murakami to issue an apology to his NFT holders on his project’s floor price and transaction prices that had plummeted. Artnet News credits his NFT failure to “terrible timing” as Murakami had spent a year fine-tuning his project’s technical details, making the release coincide with the 2022 crypto crash.   

Image 4 (Open Sea):Murakami.Flowers NFT series

Following the complications experienced by Murakami in the NFT market, his exhibition in San Francisco represented a significant redemption in his artistic trajectory. Serving not only as a compelling visual experience but also as a testament to Murakami’s resilience amid the instability of the art world, the exhibition displayed his ability to weave his artistic vision into the fabric of contemporary issues, reflecting a continued commitment to pushing artistic boundaries and signifying the signature Murakami outlook on challenging the complexities of our modern existences. 

While Murakami’s San Francisco exhibition has closed, I encourage you to seek out Murakami’s other exhibitions and art that portray a seamless blend of traditional techniques with contemporary insights. His invitation to explore his creative realms is extended to all, making it an opportunity to delve into art that transcends mere canvases, encouraging reflection on the intricacies of the human ego within our own ever-evolving worlds.

Take-Home Points

  • Takashi Murakami is a prominent figure in the world of art and commerce, pioneering the convergence of these two fields successfully.  
  • Murakami’s openness to collaboration with other industries contributed to a global revaluation of what constitutes high art.
  • Utilizing commercialization as a tool to make art accessible, Murakami challenged elitist perceptions and democratized art in the process.
  • His exhibition in San Francisco explores his unsuccessful ventures into NFTs; despite these setbacks, Murakami is committed to continuing to push artistic boundaries. 

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