These days, luxury companies are no longer setting up art foundations; instead, they’re cutting to the chase and building their own museums. Is that credible patronage or simply clever marketing?
Culture & Commerce

Art is very much the fashion

These days, luxury companies are no longer setting up art foundations; instead, they’re cutting to the chase and building their own museums. Is that credible patronage or simply clever marketing?

Silke Bender

Discover now

“Like kings and churches before them, brands today are adorning themselves with art,” says Philippe Mihailovich, professor of luxury brand management and consultant at the Haute Luxe strategy office in Paris. The steady increase in patronage of the arts is not a chance development. “It’s a win-win-win-win situation: The brands enhance their image with art; the artists’ market value rises; the sponsoring companies enjoy the tax benefits of running a foundation and, by staging exhibitions, boost the value of their own collection,” he explains.

© Vogue

Patronage turned investment

From lobster dresses and hats to product marketing

Those unable or unwilling to fork out for their own museum will at least sponsor art awards and scholarships for artists. The actual sums invested are not the subject of polite conversation, so there’s no official word on just how expensive the prestigious Fondation Louis Vuitton building was – although rumor puts it at 100 million euros. Prada also stays buttoned when the question of construction costs arises. The famous state museum Centre Pompidou in Paris has an annual budget of two million euros for the acquisition of artworks, while the French magazine Beaux Arts estimates that the Fondation Louis Vuitton has five times that sum to spend. And where the public coffers lack funds, private patrons are stepping in – and their motives are not always altruistic.

The boundaries between noble patronage and targeted product marketing are rapidly blurring. “In the early days, Charles Saatchi was still a patron in the classic sense, supporting Damien Hirst, among others, and accepting artworks in return,” says Mihailovich, “then he set up the YBA label, Young British Artists, and turned Hirst into one of the most expensive artists of his time.” Since 2000, luxury companies have increasingly also be acting as direct clients and commissioning artworks. Just as the Catholic Church once provided Michelangelo with a livelihood, today companies commission artists like Jeff Koons, who has designed cars for BMW and champagne casks for Dom Pérignon. Sarah Morris creates purses for Longchamp, while Takashi Murakami works for Louis Vuitton, and Anselm Reyle for Christian Dior.

“Luxury brands have just one problem: Their success leads to a growing visibility in everyday life and to a certain democratization. This damages the aura of rarity and exclusiveness of their products. Conversely, an artist’s signature lends added value and brings the product into close proximity with a unique artwork,” Mihailovich explains. Not always is the desired effect achieved. “The question is: Does the artist really have something to say within the context of the product or the brand? Is a more profound analysis apparent? If not, what’s going on is crude “artketing.”

In the dialogue between art and fashion, there is only one important factor – and that is credibility. When fashion designers collaborate with artists, as Elsa Schiaparelli did in 1937, when she created a hat and a lobster dress in collaboration with her friend Salvador Dalí, and artists like Tom Sachs and Sylvie Fleury focus on brand cults and logos, then what they produce is authentic art. But artists willing to put their talents at the service of all and sundry risk a loss of reputation. Artistic freedom and its conflicts, contradictions and limits become apparent elsewhere. While luxury brands today are only too pleased to hitch artists to their wagon, they can turn quite tetchy when artists help themselves. The graffiti artist ZEVS, who sprayed the showcases of brand boutiques with the flowing Chanel logo, was arrested and sued. Sachs, famous for consumer-critical sculptures, like the Chanel guillotine and the Prada loo, was given a big solo exhibition by Fondazione Prada ten years ago, but both blade and lavatory did not feature. “The brands should offer a smarter response to such provocations,” opines Mihailovich, recalling Marc Jacobs, former creative director at Louis Vuitton. When the French sprayer Kidult sprayed the word “Art” across the entire window front of the Marc Jacobs’ store in New York, Jacobs took a photo of Kidult’s artistic vandalism and printed it on a T-shirt, which then sold in the store for 689 dollars. Andy Warhol would have enjoyed that, too: Back in 1975, he prophesied that “All department stores will become museums and all museums will become department stores.”

© Keyston/laif; Bas Princen

A tower of gold in an industrial park

Fondazione Prada in Milan

The size of the exhibition spaces and the amazing nine-story tower alone are imposing, to say nothing of the quantity and quality of the works on show: “No half measures” seems to be the chosen motto of Fondazione Prada, which opened in May 2015. A small private museum? Oh no, this is an entire campus devoted to art and the foundation’s new home. A second home alongside its existing palazzo premises in Venice, it stands on the site of an old distillery in the south of Milan: an industrial structure dating from 1910, extended and transformed by the Dutch architecture star Rem Koolhaas and his team at OMA. There’s ample room for art, music, cinema, performances and interdisciplinary dialogues on its generous 19 000 square meters of space. Also, it’s been a playground for many a big name. Film director Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel) designed the bar, artists Robert Gober and Thomas Demand were commissioned with site-related installations, and filmmaker Roman Polanski initially had a hand in the cinema program. In the south gallery alone, there’s the coquettishly understated An Introduction exhibit, which showcases some ofthe most expensive contemporary artists – from Gerhard Richter to Jeff Koons – whose works are closely hung in the Petersburg style there.

Fondazione Prada

© laif

Frank O. Gehry’s “glass cloud”

Fondazione Prada in Paris

No question about it, Fondazione Prada set out to become one of the really big destinations on the international art map – just like Fondation Louis Vuitton with its billowing glass sails created by the American architect Frank O. Gehry, which opened in the fall of 2014 after ten years of construction. In 2017, the upmarket department store Galeries Lafayette will follow suit – at the heart of the ancient Marais district of Paris, where conversion work is currently in full swing on the premises that will house the Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette collection. Here, too, Rem Koolhaas’ team of architects is heading the project. The recipe is always the same: an illustrious brand name, a top architect and contemporary art.

Fondation Louis Vuitton

© Luc Boegly

30 years of contemporary art and still going

Fondation Cartier in Paris

Fondation Cartier pioneered the trend. When on October 20, 1984, the jeweler and watchmaker opened the building designed by French star architect Jean Nouvel, the combination of luxury industry and art was an absolute first, and the world was a different place. Luxury was still considered politically incorrect, and it was a thorn in the side of the left-wingers. Back then, President François Mitterrand, a socialist, mused out loud about nationalizing Cartier. Today, jewelry and watches are part of France’s biggest export and economic factor. In the past ten years, French manufacturers of luxury goods have seen their sales triple – to around 40 billion euros today. According to a survey conducted by the management consultancy Bain & Company and the Italian luxury goods federation Fondazione Altagamma, the global luxury market is likely to have generated a business volume in excess of one billion euros for the first time ever in 2015.

Fondation Cartier

Kontakt & FAQ