We’re deep into an age of art’s mass commercialization. Iconic artwork is no longer solely the purview of gallery walls and auction houses, but seen as valuable intellectual property (IP) waiting to be dropped as perfume ranges, designer bags, and skateboard decks. In this context, the marriage of a pop art prince with a king of collectible art toys seems somewhat inevitable. Still, it winks at the future.
In early November, POP MART, a Chinese brand specializing in limited edition art toys, released the latest in its Space Molly range — glossy polyvinyl astronauts that, at 70cm in height and costing close to $1,000, are extravagant home decorations rather than quirky desk ornaments. This edition featured the childlike stencils and vivid colors of Keith Haring, his signature etched across the astronaut’s name tag and gun. Within days, the entire line had sold out.
POP MART may not yet be well-known in Europe and the US, but it dominates China’s booming art toy market, estimated to reach $12 billion in value 2024. It holds 85 IPs with Molly, a duck-mouthed goggle-eyed girl, by far its most popular release. On the back of its 2020 IPO, it expanded its physical footprint to around 200 stores and sold 50 million toys in 2019, a 50 percent year-on-year revenue growth. The next step for a company that began life in a university dormitory a decade ago is internationalization — as the Keith Haring collaboration (and the SpongeBob one that preceded it) suggests.
“Keith Haring is one of the most famous pop artists globally,” POP MART tells Jing Culture & Commerce via email. “In addition to selling in China, POP MART hopes to reach more overseas consumers through this collaboration.” To be sure, while Chinese e-commerce sites such as Tmall and JD.com drive significant revenue, the products are now sold in the US, Canada, Britain, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, among other regions.
Molly’s recent intergalactic getup is courtesy of a partnership with Artestar, a global licensing agency whose portfolio of artists also includes Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Alphonse Mucha. Indeed, Artestar’s founder, David Stark, has played a significant role in the broader popularization and integration of art IP into products that are delivering contemporary art to new, oftentimes younger, audiences.
Though New York-based, Artestar has affiliate offices in China with the POP MART tie-up coming after the team visited a host of Shanghai stores while in the city for Licensing Expo China in 2019. “[We were] impressed by the range of toys, the store experience, and the positioning,” says Stark, “and POP MART is expanding its reach with many new opportunities on the horizon.” Somewhat fortuitously, when Artestar connected with POP MART, the team was already considering creating crossover collectibles with some of the artists that Artestar represents.
The collaborative process was relatively straightforward: the two aligned on select figures for a Keith Haring program; Artestar provided the art assets, allowing Kenny Wong, Molly’s chief designer, to begin work; and after back-and-forth exchanges, the final products were decided upon.
The product’s success will likely push POP MART to further explore art IP integration. “Other forms of IP are often tied to story and content,” says a POP MART representative. “People experience art via the senses and like POP MART’s main art toy products, visuals show artistic expression and ensure a deeper resonance with the audience.” This coming from a company whose founder once claimed part of Molly’s appeal stemmed from her being story-less, allowing consumers to project themselves into the character.
For Artestar’s part, the art toy market is an area in which the company has seen sustained growth in recent years. “Collaborations with Medicom and Mattel led the way for us to see the demand for artist toys globally,” Stark says. “It’s an expansive and exciting time in the space, and we’re looking to work with more quality brands and artists in the future.”