The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is giving the collaboration concept a new dimension with a first-time venture with tattoo artist “Dr. Woo.”
The West Coast-based creative will be on the East Coast Friday night to take over the museum’s First Friday event. The artist, whose given name is Brian Woo, has crafted a special apparel selection for the occasion, which will be sold at the event and through the ICA’s online store.
ICA Boston’s director of retail Liz Adrian said the retail collaborations are in sync with the museum’s mission ”to share the pleasures of reflection, inspiration, provocation and imagination that contemporary art offers to the public through access to art, artists and creative process.” Given that, her role comes down to considering the intersection of art and fashion and how to make art attainable and accessible to the greatest number of people. For the ICA, that has meant enlisting the talents of the late Virgil Abloh and artistic forces like Barbara Kruger and Jordan Nassar that extend beyond art to fashion.
While museums and other cultural institutions have been partnering with artists for exhibition-related merchandise for years, the idea of a museum tapping an unexpected and nontraditional creative to cook up limited-run apparel for a one-night event is relatively novel.
The ICA’s upcoming apparel rollout with Kruger in early November also has added bite, considering that the New Jersey-born artist’s more iconic works include “Untitled (I shop therefore I am) 1987,” a combination of bold black and white photographic images with short texts on solid colored bars. Consumerism, capitalism, women’s rights, mass media and identity are recurring themes in her multimedia works. Kruger’s brand new work will be on view in Boston from Nov. 5 to Jan. 21, 2024 but the ICA’s related consumer goods are expected to sell quickly.
The site-specific experience and product launch with Woo is part of the ICA’s new series of collaborations that are being developed with the creative agency and artist management firm Icnclst. Woo’s takeover, which is his first museum collaboration, includes offering $25 posters, $50 hats, $55 long-sleeved T-shirts, $125 hoodies and $1,000 limited-edition prints. But working with the ICA is ”purely about the art. It has more of a creative focus versus a big, commercial campaign. It highlights the art and the creativity. It’s a nice break from the usual campaigns that I’m working on,” he said. ”This one is more about embracing and sharing art on a platform that is all about inspiration and appreciation, and archiving moments through art language, which is cool. There isn’t any other ulterior motive than to bring the community in the area together to appreciate art in different forms.”
Woo won’t be inking up anyone on the scene at the ICA, but projections of him drawing will be splashed on the harbor front building. ”I guess you could say the building is going to get a tattoo.” Adrain said.
From his tattoo upbringing and education, tattooing is a trade, a craft first and then an art, depending on whom one is talking to. Working at first in a street shop, he collaborated with clients, creating their images for them and “the execution was in my technique and my style. But what I create out of pure expression is not necessarily what I do as a tattoo artist. What I do with my clients is a bit of an artisanal craft. What I do for myself or when clients ask for my specific design, I guess that is art. That’s me as an artist. Of course, tattooing is an art but I do see the split. It can be defined in different ways,” he said.
The tattoo specialist previously teamed with Citizens of Humanity on a couple of apparel pieces. Woo said he is working on another luxury watch project he declined to reveal and he has his own skin care line. He and the jewelry designer Rick Rose launched their Crescent Heights Hardware lab jewelry Wednesday. ”I try to keep busy outside of tattooing as well. Creatively, I’m hungry and very curious. When I create things, I look beyond images on skin. I want to transcend not just as a tattoo artist but as an artist as well.”
At the ICA, Dr. Woo fans will be vying for a compact capsule collection with only 500 hoodies, 500 long sleeved T-shirts, 500 hats and 100 limited-edition prints. Needless to say, a sellout is expected. ”We are so excited to have Dr. Woo here. It’s going to be amazing. We had talked about who would be interesting in terms of broadening our whole base. When we started to work with Virgil, we felt that we were opening ourselves up to an audience that we hadn’t spoken to before. We wanted to continue that conversation and thought Dr. Woo would be someone, who would fit in that camp,” Adrian said.
Last year the ICA unveiled a ”Church & State” pop-up retail experience to link with its exhibition ”Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech.” That assortment featured exhibition-specific apparel designed by Abloh and limited-edition styles from his Off-White brand that were produced exclusively for the ICA. The merchandise was so popular that the pop-up was extended until nearly the end of last year even though the exhibition wound down in September 2021. The ICA generated about $2 million in retail sales from the pop-up. While some of the proceeds had been earmarked for Abloh’s estate, “a huge amount” went to the museum, Adrian said. When the store first debuted, shoppers could only purchase a maximum of five units and that cap was later increased when the store’s run was extended to 15 units per person.
By interacting with ICA visitors on a daily basis and understanding what matters to them, Adrian said it is clear they want items that they connect with that can also be daily reminders of museum experiences that resonated with them. That could translate into a favorite sweatshirt, a day-in, day-out tote bag or a print that hangs in your living room, Adrian said. ”You are definitely connecting with artists in a much more meaningful way, because it is something that is personal to you that you collect,” she said.
As for the longevity of museums’ increased interest in retail, Adrian expects that trend to continue to become more important. ”The way it’s being handled is pretty intelligent. People are doing things in limited quantities,” she said, comparing the concept to the way people have purchased concert memorabilia. ”It becomes collectible and desirable not only because of the artwork, but also the feelings it evokes. If institutions and artists are planning it out in an intelligent way, it will always have a place.”
Woo is on board with the multidimensional pursuits that artists are increasingly chasing. However, before doing that, it’s better “to put in the 10,000 hours that you are focused on,” he said. ”This is just an opinion, not everyone, but younger creatives get caught up in thinking that they have to do all these things — that they don’t focus on that one thing. It’s important to sharpen one tool the sharpest you can before you starting more tools into the tool box.”
That said, some brands have approached Adrian about collaborating and “that is definitely in the works for the future,” declining to elaborate. Separately, limited-run female-centric apparel and a Baggu bag have been developed with Kruger for the ICA. Instead of the typical boxy T-shirt, the styles have been created to fit a woman’s body that is very flattering, Adrian said. That befits the artist’s vast portfolio, which includes the seminal 1989 silkscreen “Untitled, (Your body is a battleground.)” The precise collection will bow at the ICA in conjunction with the unveiling of a Kruger art wall in the museum’s lobby, which is a public space with access to all. The wall will be on view for more than a year but the merchandise will be available on a first-come, first serve-basis.
Nassar, meanwhile, has a solo exhibition on view at the ICA through the end of January. The artist has dreamt up hoodies that have been hand embroidered in Palestine and individually signed by each embroiderer for the ICA. ”They are pretty one-of-a-kind and we only have a small quantity of them.” Adrian said.