Activating Art

SCB Partners sits down with our network of art world insiders to get their perspective on how brands can successfully carry out activity within art.

There are many ways to frame the relationship between brands and the art world – a sponsorship, a partnership, a commission, a collaboration, even a co-opting. But no matter what you call it, the presence of major brands in the realm of high culture is increasingly unavoidable. This is particularly true of luxury and lifestyle brands looking to establish their cultural equity and connect with today’s luxury consumer, who find value in brand experiences that they consider to be enlightening and modern.

However, for every great example of a brand and artist working together, there are endless examples that miss the mark, fail to strike a chord, or ultimately result in a disingenuous representation of cultural appropriation. “It is easily evident when a brand is using art or any type of cultural appropriation as a means of bringing attention to their product,” explains Miami gallerist Nina Johnson. “It usually ends up being a shallow ‘collectable’ of sorts. That may have worked in the past, but the conversation has changed, and the expectations are far higher.”

So how do you get it right? How do you maintain authenticity while attempting to reinforce your brand message?


Dig deeper

Having worked with brands such as BMW, Deutsche Bank, Gucci, and Ruinart, Michael Papadeas, the commercial director of Frieze – the art fair that hosts 160 of the world’s leading galleries and presents the works of more than 1,000 artists – is no stranger to navigating the intricacies of artworld partnerships. He points out that over several years he has witnessed the artworld become increasingly cautious and protective, placing greater demands on brands to demonstrate a deeper intention to support and cultivate the arts over time.

A leader at this is fine champagne house Ruinart, which has proved its commitment to contemporary art with its ongoing series of major collaborations and a presence at nearly all major art fairs. According to Papadeas, it is because of this commitment that Ruinart has cemented itself as a leading brand for the art world. “Ruinart is now considered the best champagne for no other reason than its enduring commitment and investment to be a part of the art scene,” says Papadeas. “The brand’s visibility at almost every art fair that matters, great commissions and interesting content has made it the drink that the supposedly ‘right’ people drink.”


Let the experts do the talking

London artist Nick Hornby, who has been collaborating with the luxury fashion retailer MatchesFashion over the past twelve months, applauds tech giant Apple for its recent foray into the cultural arena. Using augmented reality, the company transformed the landscapes of the world’s major capitals by overlaying original artworks by contemporary heavyweights, such as Carsten Höller, Pililotti Rist, Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg.

The project, which was co-curated with New York’s New Museum, pushed the boundaries of how brands and artists can work together, and resulted in a collaboration that managed to create shareable content while protecting the elevated status of contemporary art. Success was driven due to the project being led by curatorial expertise, where artists were selected based on relevance and their ability to challenge the medium. The result was a digital brand experience that was both fresh and surprising.



Above: Pipilotti Rist, International Liquid Finger Prayer – Apple [AR]T Walks


Lead with trust

Cultureshock – a creative media agency that works with global brands to foster relationships with major cultural institutions and creatives – highlights the care that needs to go into considering the dynamics of any such relationship, and how difficult these are to get right. The company’s head of content, Edward Behrens, highlights that, while getting it ‘right’ is difficult, the industry that most frequently achieves this is fashion, due to a more aligned sensibility, and therefore trust, that exists between artists and designers.

Echoing Behrens, Patricia Rezai, a writer, poet, and fashion consultant based in Madrid, notes that while this relationship is nothing new, it works particularly well when it is human rather than a corporate matchmaking exercise. Her favourite example is the collaboration between Coco Capitan and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, where the Spanish artist was invited to use Gucci’s clothing as a canvas. “Alessandro and Coco are close friends and because of this, the duo sparked,” she says. “Coco did all the handwritten Gucci shirts and bags, as well as wall written installations and billboards. The humanity and freedom came through – there was a trust there that can’t be faked.”


Don’t lower the tone

London fashion designer and art collector Charlie Casely-Hayford of the Casely-Hayford brand clothing brand cites the collaboration between fellow fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner and the Serpentine Gallery as the most significant partnership he has seen recently.

Avoiding the mistake of many brands and designers, Bonner Wales, who is recognised as one of the most innovative designers of her generation, understood that in order forge a relationship with the respected London institution, she would need to at least initially approach it as an artist, and not as a brand. “It was executed with a full 360 thought process,” explains Casely-Hayford. “She created an experiential exhibition at the gallery that was removed from fashion and focused more on her inspirations and research.”

Her fashion practice was only then introduced as a punctuation to the exhibition through a series of live programmes, including her brand Wales Bonner’s autumn-winter 2019 runway show, named Mumbo Jumbo.

Whether allowing the art to proceed other mediums, or making prolonged commitments that transcend seasonality, the key for these brand activities to treat art, the artworld, and its prestigious institutions with delicacy and respect. Only with this mentality can a brand even begin to think about gaining permission to this challenging but lucrative environment.



Above left: Everythings for Real by Grace Wales Bonner; Above right: London Fashion Week AW19 Presentation at Serpentine Galleries by Wales Bonner


Words: William West