Major league baseball is a game of many time-tested traditions. A newer and more idiosyncratic custom, however, is its promotion of "Official and Commemorative Artists," whose job is to capture the All Star games and World Series as works of art and as images that may be reproduced as saleable mementos. The practice opens up a small but lucrative field for contemporary painters with the right stuff. The Commemorative Artist for both the 2007 Major League Baseball All Star Game in San Francisco and the 2007 World Series in Boston is Brian Fox, a sports artist based in Somerset, Mass.
Commemorative artists literally paint the action while it is taking place, and in San Francisco, Fox made two paintings in a roped-off area behind left field, viewable by fans and the occasional panning television camera. After the game, the pictures were taken into the lockerrooms and signed by all 60 players -- and then were promptly sold for $30,000 apiece to a private collector of sports art.
For the World Series, Fox did a three-figure study of Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett and fielders Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz at his home studio, since there is no place for him to work at Boston’s relatively small Fenway Park. His absence from the stands didn’t appear to make the work less valuable, however. Fox said that collectors had expressed interest in bidding on it even before the game, sight-unseen.
As an official artist of Major League Baseball, Fox is one of the go-to artists for collectors in the field of "sports art." He didn’t come away with much money from the All Star game, having donated all but $10,000 from the sale of the two paintings to the Major Leagues Baseball Players Trust, a grant-giving foundation for at-risk kids. "The money doesn’t really matter," he said. "I get a tremendous amount of exposure and I pick up work from athletes and other clients."
That work consists of commissions. "There were some players, some Hollywood people I met out there at a party. They say, ‘I’d like you to do something for me. What’s your schedule?’" After the World Series, he found the time. Fox also has his own website.
Many other sports artists are at work in other sporting venues -- and they hardly have to live in the primary art centers. Painter Bill Lopa, who is based in Livingston, N.J., has been the official commemorative artist for the last three Super Bowls, as well as the official artist of the National Sports Collectors Convention. Linda Hartough of Hilton Head Island, S.C., is the longtime official artist of the U.S. Golf Association. New Rochelle-based artist Charles Fazzino was the official artist of the National Hockey League’s All Star Game. Wyland of Aliso Viejo, Ca., is the official artist of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. James Fiorentino, based in Flemington, N.J., has been an official artist of the Cycling Hall of Fame. And Misha Linn of Brookline, Mass., has been the official artist of both the Kentucky Derby and the Westminster Kennel Dog Show.
These artists make the bulk of their money from reproductions -- prints, posters and licensed images on t-shirts, neckties and dozens of other keepsakes and tchotchkes.
For example, in 2006, Lopa made a painting of the Atlanta Falcons football team that featured a number of their standout players, putting it on display in a booth at the NFL Experience, a memorabilia and collectibles event that takes place at the time of the Super Bowl. An executive from the Falcons saw the painting, bought it for $15,000 (a courtesy discount of 50 percent from the list price) and soon after licensed the image to create 100 digital prints that were given to season ticket holders as a bonus. Lopa received $250 for each print.
Similarly, Linda Hartough’s painting of the 14th hole at the 2007 U.S. Open Championship in Oakmont, Pa., retails for $56,500, while the 850 limited-edition prints containing the official U.S. Golf Association logo sell for $225 each, unframed. Another 85 "artist proofs" of the same image go for $325 apiece. The total value adds up to more than $280,000.
How does one become an official sports artist? As in the commercial gallery world, sending in your slides is unlikely to lead to success. "We don’t take solicitations or applications from artists," said Anne Occi, who oversees the art program for Major League Baseball. More useful are personal connections. The Pittsburgh-based Pop artist Burton Morris got his job as official artist for the 2006 All Star game at the recommendation of Kevin McClatchy, a collector of his work who also happened to be part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As official All Star game artist, Morris made a wide range works well in advance of the actual game, including specially painted bases for the home run derby, the program cover, banners, tickets, ballpark decorations, posters and various other forms of merchandise. Morris’ business manager, Alan Smith, declined to discuss how much the artist earned from the event, although he said that the four hand-painted bases added up to $75,000 and that the entire deal involved seven separate contracts.
As always in the art field, you can’t underestimate the value of personal initiative. The artist Brian Fox started out as a graphic designer, making sports art for t-shirts at Liquid Blue, a merchandise company in Lincoln, R.I. "I really wanted to paint the athletes," he said, and he began doing so, eventually taking large-scale (4 x 6 ft.) paintings of New England Patriots players to their practice field and asking them to sign the pictures. "It was before the team became so successful, a dynasty, and they were happy that anyone was looking at them."
Fox would trade the paintings with players for game tickets, and eventually began exhibiting and selling the artworks. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady owns one of his paintings, a gift from the team owners, and Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling commissioned Fox to paint a portrait of Yankee legend Lou Gehrig after the artist had made a donation of his artwork for the ALS Foundation (for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's disease"), a cause for which the pitcher and his wife have done extensive fundraising.
Legal disputes have cropped up in the sports art business often enough, typically pitting a freelance artist against a firm that holds the licensing rights to that athlete or team. An artist who wants to mass-produce prints or merchandise displaying the image of a sports personality had better be prepared to pay a licensing fee, which can amount to "tens of thousands of dollars," according to Fred Friedman, owner of the publisher and licensing agent Upper Class Collectibles.
Another interesting angle involves the signature. In fine art, it’s the artist’s signature that is important. In sports art, a collector pays more if the image is signed by Derek Jeter or Dale Earhardt, Jr. or whomever the featured athlete is in the image. What’s more, the subjects of sports art are generally paid between $25 and $1,500 for their signatures.
Several galleries feature sports art, including the chain of Field of Dreams Sports Galleries (www.fieldofdreams.com), which exists in 14 states around the country; MVP Galleries (www.mvpgalleries.com) in Phoenix and the Gallery of Sports Art (www.galleryofsportsart.com) in Greenfield, Wisc. The majority of sales in the sports art industry -- reputed to be $4 billion a year -- take place at various annual events like the All Star Game FanFest, the National Sports Collectors Convention and the PGA Merchandise Show. Another important outlet is the web sites of the artists who create the work. The American Sport Art Museum and Archives in Daphne, Ala., and the National Art Museum of Sport in Indianapolis hold regular exhibitions of sports-themed painting and sculpture, as do the baseball and football hall of fames in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Canton, Ohio, respectively.
DANIEL GRANT is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine and the author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other books.