It’s a Whole New Ballgame for Sports Art
Collectors are beginning to see sports art as a wise investment.
Sure, some might scoff at the idea of a self-proclaimed artist finding inspiration in something as daft as a football or basketball game. The fact that some depictions of these sporting events have about as much artistic merit as a velvet Elvis doesn’t help either (we won’t name names). Still, sports art does have a rather glorious past. Take, for example, those lovely Grecian urns once crafted to commemorate Olympic chariot races of yore. Even the Aztecs depicted their favorite sport of tlachtli—a mix of volleyball, basketball and football—in their ancient works. And let us not forget Degas and his penchant for horseracing.
“There are a lot of people in the art world who think [sports art] is wonderful, while others remain sort of quiet about it,” says Ann Rein, administrative director of Purdue University’s National Art Museum of Sport on the campus of Indiana University – Purdue University in Indianapolis. “But, I think people see its value in reaching those not interested in art. They also see it as a wonderful way to portray the human figure in action—they see the excitement and the emotion an artist can create in sports art.”
Outside the museum world, some collectors and enthusiasts are beginning to see sports art as a wise investment. Popular New York-based sports artist Bill Lopa says sports art allows buyers to “put two eggs in one basket. A good client realizes that if you buy a bat signed by an athlete, and that athlete doesn’t pan out, the bat is worthless. However, if you buy a painting of that athlete, you’ve got a shot that both the athlete and the artist will do well—it doubles your chances that something will work out for you.”
Whether it’s a love for the painter or the athlete being painted, sports art is getting an increasing amount of attention. “The market is growing, and it’s becoming more and more serious everyday,” says Danny Stern, an art dealer with the Los Angeles–based SPS Limelight Agency, which represents popular sports artists Stephen Holland, Opie Otterstad and Andrew Bernstein. Elliot Burns, president and chief executive officer of New York–based Soho Editions, agrees, saying sports art is part of a growing market that combines a love of art with a love of something else, such as, say, wine or martinis.
“It has a synergistic combination that creates a new passion among collectors,” Burns says. “And when people get to combine their passions, it’s a very powerful force.” One Soho Editions’ artist who is stirring people’s passions is Malcolm Farley, whose prints sell anywhere between $600 and $2,000, and whose oils go for up to $12,000.
According to Stern, people are taking notice of the increasing quality of the work being produced, adding that the people making it aren’t just creatively inclined jocks, but serious and well-trained artists. Holland, for example, started painting sports figures when he was starting out as an aspiring artist and couldn’t afford to hire live models. Instead, he used images ripped out of boxing magazines. Although he later received formal training at the School of Visual Art and the Pratt Institute, both in New York, Holland never forgot his pugilist muses, and is now one of the most sought-after sports artists working, commanding up to $35,000 for his work. “For Stephen, it’s the art that comes first,” says Stern. “The subject matter comes second.”
Even if there is a growing appreciation for sports art, some say the market for it isn’t as strong as it was in the boom years of the 1990s. In fact, it may be oversaturated. “There is just so much of it out there right now, and I’m not sure how much wall space is left for it,” says Perez, who points to decreased sales of baseball cards and memorabilia as evidence of a dwindling sports art market. “Memorabilia isn’t the same as what it was in the ’90s,” he says. “It was a big boom back then, and I got into this at the right time. I don’t think I could do it today.”
While Perez feels there are too many artists creating sports art, Stern says it’s difficult for those who want to paint popular sports figures to get into the business, since publishing such works requires dozens of licensing agreements that are often hard to negotiate. “A limited edition of someone like Kobe Bryant might require up to four licenses,” he says. “You have to get permission from the National Basketball Association (NBA), the NBA Player’s Association, the athletes themselves and sometimes the team.” But, Stern says the SPS Limelight Agency has a strong relationship with such entities, since its sister company, Sports Placement Services, represents such high-caliber athletes as boxing legend Muhammad Ali and baseball great Sandy Koufax.
Another obstacle for sports art is that galleries are still reluctant to carry it, since it often has only limited—or sometimes local—appeal. A painting of famed Cincinnati Reds player Johnny Bench, for example, would probably fail to drum up much interest outside of the Greater Cincinnati area. But Soho’s Burns says artwork related to more universal, non-franchised sports, such as golf or tennis, have more wide-ranging appeal. Thus, galleries are more willing to carry them. As a publisher, he says some galleries are willing to sell his company’s sports art since Soho stands behind its artists 100 percent—“still, it’s not as broad a market as Mediterranean landscapes or still lifes,” he says.
However, SPS Limelight’s Stern says that the popularity of sports art should continue to grow thanks to that quintessentially American phenomenon known as media rooms.
“They’re getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “After dropping $100,000 on the wiring and equipment, you want to decorate that room with something that honors all you put into it—and you’re not going to tack posters up on the wall.” Stern says artists like Holland are benefiting from a demand from those who want to decorate their media rooms with thoughtful depictions of their favorite catchers or quarterbacks.
Museums Take Notice
Increasing attention in the museum world might attest to the fact that today’s sports artists aren’t just depicting popular athletes, they are also grappling with deeper issues, such as the growing corporatism of the sports industry, the outrageously high salaries being paid to today’s professional athletes, and America’s often misguided obsession with stadium building, says Alyson Baker, who served as co-curator of the recent exhibit “Sport” at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, NY. Baker says she was surprised when she started receiving artists’ applications to appear in the show, which features 12 large-scale, sports-related sculptures. “They had a much more nostalgic take on the subject than I expected,” she says. “Most of them harken back to another period of sports history. [The artists] are looking at sports with a sense of legend and heroism that’s not being applied to contemporary sports.”
In some of the works, the artists seem to be lamenting the faded glory of the sports world by depicting the meaninglessness of today’s media-glazed version of it.
For example, Ron Baron’s “Excavation 1.2 SOC: A Monument to the Weekend Warrior,” is a 31-foot slab containing old and discarded sporting equipment and topped by a trophy. A trophy for what, exactly, is up to the viewer to decide.
Baker says it’s not surprising that many of today’s artists are embracing sports as a subject matter. What is surprising is the fact that many of the ones participating in the Socrates show are themselves athletes. “A lot of people think that if you’re a jock, you can’t be an artist, but that’s not the case at all,” she says. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Perhaps one day some of the artists included in the Socrates show will find their own artwork featured at the Hermitage of sports art—the National Art Museum of Sport. Founded in 1959, the museum has amassed a collection of 130,000 works, and is home to the country’s largest collection of sports-related art, including steel engravings of boxing matches and hunting scenes taken from the old Harper’s Bazaar, as well as works by Winslow Homer and the granddaddy of American sports art, LeRoy Neiman. Rein says the reason for the enduring quality of sports art is simple: “The thing about sports art is that it is storytelling art. So as long as there are stories to tell, it will remain popular.