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Is the era of superstar artists with scores of assistants coming to an end?

29 March 2019

During the art market’s boom years, before the slowdown in 2015, colossal works by star artists regularly fetched big prices. Exuberance triumphed: Damien Hirst’s golden calf pickled in formaldehyde sold for $18.6m at Sotheby’s in 2008, while Jeff Koons’s orange balloon dog sold for a record $58.4m at Christie’s in 2013.

Until recently, such large-scale works called for factory-style studios manned by legions of assistants. But, as the air thins at the peak of the market and art practices evolve with technological advancements, cuts are being made and studios restructured. In January, as Koons moved from his 10,000-square-foot studio in Chelsea to a smaller space in the Hudson Yards neighbourhood of New York, he laid off around 30 out of 40 staff in his painting department. Speaking at the opening of his exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford last month, Koons said he has reduced his footprint so that his sculpture department ‘can become more of a think tank’.

He notes how his practice has become more reliant on technology – 3D-scanning and reverse engineering, which is undertaken by a team of programmers in his studio. ‘Works can be manufactured off-site with a precision that couldn’t be achieved otherwise,’ he says. This is a marked change from the early 2000s, when Koons brought the whole production line in-house because he ‘couldn’t find anybody to give me the finishes of the aluminium sculptures the way I wanted them’.

There are other signs the former Wall Street trader is moving towards a more automated workforce. In 2015, he beefed up operations at his stone workshop in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, where 12 computer-operated machines, costing between $200,000 and $600,000 each, do most of the carving for him. But Koons stresses machines will not altogether replace his human assistants, however efficient and cost-effective they may be (he employs 30 people in Pennsylvania). ‘Technology is just a tool, and I use tools,’ he says.

Hirst’s restructuring follows a downturn in value of some of his works. A recent report on Artnet found that 19 pieces by Hirst from his Sotheby’s auction in 2008 have since been resold, 17 of which have depreciated in value, with a collective loss of almost £2.2m.

Last October, Hirst laid off 50 members of staff, mainly working in finance and IT, although there were also losses in his London and Gloucester studios, which famously employed huge teams of assistants. According to a Companies House filing on 29 January, there are just two out of six directors left at Science (UK) Ltd, Hirst’s main art-producing company: Damien Hirst and Jason Beard, the art director behind his recently revamped website. Hugh Allan, a friend of Hirst’s since school, left in October 2018, while the other directors – James Cameron Kelly, Jude Tyrrell, and Sylvia Park – left in 2017. According to a spokeswoman, the changes ‘are not driven by a need to reduce costs but by [Hirst’s] desire to cut the corporate elements of the business to get back to a simpler way of working’. In short, he is keen to ‘spend more time in the studio’, she says.

Hirst’s return to painting in recent years has been well documented (for decades, assistants created his spot paintings), but this does not mean an end to blockbuster installations and commissions. Last year he redesigned the bar at the Palms Casino Resort, complete with trisected shark, as part of a $620m renovation by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta. The art-loving brothers also acquired a 60-foot-tall bronze version of one of Hirst’s sculptures from his ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ exhibition of 2017, with a reported price tag of $14m. Hirst is splurging in other ways, recently buying a building on Beak Street in central London for around £40m, which is set to become his flagship studio after extensive renovations. The complex, which includes exhibition spaces, is due to open later this year.

Not all artists have multimillion-pound budgets. The London-based artist Shezad Dawood employs four other people in his studio on a part-time basis. He estimates the annual cost of running his studio to be between £80,000 and £100,000 – ‘although the sky’s the limit if I take on a particularly complex project,’ he says. Much of Dawood’s work is research-based, resulting in pieces created in a multitude of media including sculpture, neon, film and, more recently, virtual reality (VR). Dawood’s head of partnerships oversees his VR projects, as well as public commissions and partnerships with institutions, foundations, universities and NGOs, among others. ‘We are doing so much VR at the moment, I have given over one third of my studio to it. The troubleshooting you have to do is immense,’ says Dawood, who is working on a new VR project, Leviathan Legacy, the first part of which was premiered at the West Bund Art & Design fair in Shanghai in November.

Dawood also employs a studio manager, who deals with admin and finance as well as liaising with museums and galleries. His project manager, meanwhile, is responsible for development and fundraising. And then there is archiving and educational outreach. ‘Galleries used to deal with such things, but it’s falling to artists more and more,’ Dawood says. ‘Because my practice is research-based and funding-heavy, it’s not really within a gallery’s remit. I might be working on a public commission, for instance. It’s a real juggling act.’

For Raqib Shaw, his studio is a reflection of his paintings: bustling, fantastical landscapes that draw from decorative and floral motifs. In 2011, Shaw converted a derelict former sausage-factory in Peckham, south London, into a home and studio, filling it from top to bottom with exotic plants and gilt-edged furniture. The artist declines to give costs, but he employs a team of eight assistants – three for drawing and five for painting (more are employed on a freelance basis for specific projects). ‘It’s a very informal place of work, no one really has an official job title and most people work part-time,’ says his studio manager Siwan Abbott-Moriarty. ‘There is no CEO. It’s a small scale operation and a very simple set-up.’

Shaw likens his work ethic to the Japanese idea of monozukuri, which loosely translates as ‘manufacturing’ or ‘the act of making’. He says: ‘This Japanese work ethic encourages me to strive for perfection. My paintings are a life-long commitment, and it is important that my assistants understand this relationship between object and the maker.’

A far cry from the studios of Hirst and Koons of yesteryear, some artists work with very little or no assistance. The American artist Cindy Sherman, for example, poses in her own photographs disguised under layers of prosthetics and costumes, expertly handling all her own make-up, hair and lighting without a single assistant. Others, such as Jeremy Deller, who stages between one and three performances a year, operate pop-up studios on location. Deller’s one constant is Fraser Muggeridge Studio, which produces all of his graphic design for him. Apart from that, Deller says: ‘I am a roving artist so I assemble teams around me when I need, or I work within institutions, so the studio is mobile.’

In increasingly uncertain times, it seems more artists – even those with deep pockets – are having to be more nimble with their studio operations.

From the March 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here