While the symbiotic relationship between artist and patron is centuries old, in recent years the notion of outside financial support for artistic endeavour has become more contentious than ever. Why so? Well, the reasons stem from a cultural shift unique to the last century: commissioning and supporting the creation of artworks was once largely the privilege of the nobility, royalty and religious leaders – but in the twentieth century, these traditional sponsors of culture were gradually replaced by a new model with even bigger coffers: corporate business.
But is the rise and rise of the corporate sponsor necessarily a bad thing? Can the uneasy-sounding bedfellows of artist and corporation get together in such a way that is both good for art and good for everyone; or do the garish logos, the plethora of brands, the corporate statements that accompany the vast majority of contemporary exhibitions tarnish any pure experience of the art that we go and see in our millions each year? We thought we’d see for ourselves: so we trekked round some of London’s biggest draws to see just how the hand of big business affects the modern day experience of art.
First up was the David Hockney exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, sponsored by Burberry. On entering the ticket hall, the fashion brand’s logo sits comfortably – and unobtrusively, it’s typographic after all – on the main panel announcing the details of the show. It seems fitting, too, that a fashion brand alive and well in the 60s associate themselves with the father of the British Pop Art scene – and so there’s none of that jarring that comes from an inappropriate match between event and sponsor (McDonald’s and the 2012 Olympics anyone?).
Similarly, next door, the Photographic Portrait Prize (as it’s now rather modestly known having dropped the “Schweppes” sponsored prefix) exhibits the best work from the competition, the only obvious sponsorship coming in the form of the Deloitte Commission – an award for photographers aged between 18 and 25. Again, there’s just a small logo on the main board with no fuss around any of the photography.
So would a far bigger show, like Velázquez at The National Gallery, display more of its sponsor’s involvement? After all, the sums of money involved here are, no doubt, significantly higher. In actuality, Abbey’s sponsorship of the exhibition is only visually conveyed on the banners outside the gallery, on the neat little guide book and in the reception room to the show itself. It seems clear then that Abbey (and, perhaps, sponsors in general) are aware that people don’t need – or want – any hard sell in an exhibition environment and, in a way, this rather detached association with an influential show (a minimal logo here and there) no doubt fares them better than having visitors (and critics) come away thinking they’ve just been to a “branded” show.
What people prefer, surely, is some sense of authenticity or a level of honesty in any brand’s association with a particular part of the cultural world. Initially, Abbey’s connections to Velázquez might seem tangential – but the company’s involvement with art (and in particular Spanish art) in fact carries some weight with it, thanks to it having being bought out by Spanish bank, Santander, just over two years ago. Abbey Chairman, Lord Burns, states that “The history of © ß [Santander] supporting art is underpinned by a permanent exhibition [based near Madrid] that features around 170 works of art, ranging from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, and is one of the most important private collections in Europe. It’s therefore particularly fitting for Abbey to support this exhibition and we are delighted to be able to play a part in the ongoing relationship between the worlds of finance and art.”
Like the Deutsche Bank, which runs a successful gallery and art magazine, Santander wears its connections to the art world proudly on its pin-striped sleeve. Deutsche Bank has succeeded in presenting their art interest as remarkably genuine – with a commitment to promoting and supporting new talent.
Moreover, big business has been buying and collecting art for years; it’s only when commercial influence imposes on the curatorial independence of an exhibition that the ground becomes distinctly dodgy (as the Guggenheim discovered to its embarrassment when it put on an exhibition of Armani designs, having allegedly just pocketed a donation of millions from Giorgio himself). But these types of relationships get much harder to monitor when cultural institutions themselves behave like corporations – like the Guggenheim franchise and, of course, Brand Tate.
The creation of the Unilever Series, housed in the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, is everything a sponsor could want: it presents a spectacle, attracts huge numbers of visitors and, perhaps even more significantly, it places the brand name as artwork. In the same way that Beck’s now conjures up cool associations with the new wave of young artists through its sponsorship of the Beck’s Futures prize, so does Unilever (one of the wealthiest companies in the world) enter into the lexicon of contemporary art. Almost without us even noticing.
Even at the other end of the gallery spectrum, in the domain of the smaller venues and underground art, sponsors are just as keen to be associated with progressive, edgy, outsider work. This reached a crescendo when, in 2003, artist Ryan McGinness staged a show at the BLK/MRKT Gallery in LA called Sponsorship. Put simply, he invited several companies to exhibit their logos in an exhibition space, giving larger areas of the walls over to those who had paid more to “exhibit” there. So curated advertising became the sole content of the show. “Any company could contribute any amount it wished in cash, products, or services,” McGinness explained in an interview for German magazine, Lodown. “The sponsors’ logos were on display at different sizes and locations, commensurate with their level of contribution, along with product and promotional giveaways. My hope was that an empty exhibition would create enough pause for us to consider both the fine art of corporate sponsorship and the corporate sponsorship of fine art.”
Shepard Fairey, who founded BLK/MRKT with Dave Kinsey, wrote about McGinness’ show in an essay, Absoloot Sponsorship, posted on his Obey Giant site. In it he applauded both McGinness’ concept and also the involvement of the sponsors who displayed their logos and products, most of whom, he says, “wanted to be part of this self-parodying idea without knowing how it might be received by the public.” The hipster crowd that turned up to the opening night for the free booze and goodies had an immediate association with the brands involved which, ultimately – tongue-in-cheek conceptualising or not – made for some happy sponsors.
“Ryan’s art show reminds us that the attraction to art and artists in the first place is often their freshness, passion, unpredictability, and ability to challenge the status quo,” says Fairey. “Sponsors who embrace this beautiful chaos head on are the likely leaders of the next commercial generation. The National Endowment for the Arts is basically dead, so sponsorship is likely to play an even more prominent role in the lives of exhibiting artists. Artists: give the companies credit for taking risks. Companies: give the artists money for taking risks. Everybody wins in this equation.”