Have luxury brands patronising art blurred the lines between serious exhibitions and lavish displays of prestige?
Art has to an extent always been associated with luxury. Throughout history, wealthy patrons, such as the Medici family, have commissioned extravagant fine art in a display of their wealth, power and taste. In the past decade this association has reached an industrial scale as luxury brands have become increasingly entwined with the rise of a new global nouveau riche, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, which seek the same values from both sectors: big names with even bigger prices.
In a bid to maximise this trend, luxury brands have become major art patrons, sponsoring both museum exhibitions and commercial art fairs. The lobbies and VIP lounges of fairs such as Art Basel display watches by Bachon Constantine and jewels from Bulgari and until this year Cartier had been the main sponsor of Art Dubai. Fashion houses have increasingly courted famous artists. Last year the American artist Sterling Ruby collaborated with Belgian designer Raf Simons on a neon paint splattered menswear collection; in 2012 Damien Hirst created a range of luxury backpacks for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s label, The Row, which carried a price tag of $35,000. In the same year, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a clothing range featuring her signature polka dot patterns, sold at a specially commissioned concept shop in London’s Selfridges department store.
Such flashy ventures have, however, often overshadowed the more serious and enduring engagement of some luxury houses with contemporary art, including Cartier, Prada and Louis Vuitton, who have set up major art foundations with programmes worthy of the best museums. Their prominence in the art world is growing. The Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, a new museum designed by the architect Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne park to the west of Paris, opened in October. In May, Fondazione Prada, the art foundation set up by fashion designer Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli in 1993, will open the latest and largest contemporary art gallery in Milan, with 11,000 square metres of exhibition space and a bar designed by film director Wes Anderson. Meanwhile, the art foundation of the high-end French department store group Galeries Lafayette will open in an office block refurbished by Rem Koolhas in 2016.
Housed in an eight-storey glass structure in Montparnasse designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, the Cartier Foundation, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, has commissioned more than 800 works and staged more than 150 exhibitions. Its highlights include orchestrating a reunion of the Velvet Underground in 1990, being the first major museum to exhibit the drawings and photographs of film director David Lynch in 2007 and commissioning the celebrated American photographer William Eggleston to document Paris in 2009.
Although 60 per cent of its funding comes from the jeweller Cartier, the foundation operates a strict rule that no commissioned artist can ever work with the luxury brand, maintaining a strict delineation between the brand’s business and arts patronage. Foundation director Herve Chandes is keen to stress that the organisation’s interest in art extends beyond the big names, contending its major achievements have been championing and nurturing the practice of emerging and mid-career artists, many of whom have gone on to much greater prominence in the art world. This work has included a major exhibition of African photographers and the first art exhibition of the Japanese director Beat Takeshi Kitano, which included a multicoloured sculpture of a T-Rex and an elephant with a cybernetic weaponised trunk.
Chandes says: “It’s very easy to make a programme of the most famous names. If the public come to the foundation and they already know what it is about, what is the point?”
Among the artists the foundation has helped to gain greater prominence are the Australian hyper-realist sculptor Ron Mueck, the Chinese painter Yue Minjun and Sarah Sze, who represented the US in the 2013 Venice Biennale – the world’s most important contemporary art event – with her sprawling installation Triple Point. Fourteen years earlier, Chandes visited the artist in her New York studio and fell in love with her then small-scale intricate installations. He invited her to make a huge installation – called Everything That Rises Must Converge – for the ground floor of the foundation, an experience that not only raised her out of relative obscurity but one which the artists herself has said helped transform the scale of her practice. “She was very surprised with the scale,” Chandes recalls. “It was challenging in a good way in terms of questioning the dimensions of her art.”
Some art experts are uneasy about the increasingly close relationship of fine art and fashion. Georgina Adam, editor at large of the Art Newspaper says luxury brands are using their association with big-name artists to heighten the sense of exclusivity about their clothing. “They just want to have their logos everywhere,” she says.
However, others are more relaxed about such collaborations. Wendy Cromwell, president of the US Association of Art Advisors, says her first introduction to art and fashion was through Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian collection, inspired by the Modernist minimalist paintings. “I tend to look favourably on the merger of fashion and art because I see fashion as a form of self-expression and I believe art collecting is also a form of self-expression,” she says.
Cromwell shares Adam’s disquiet about the commercial sponsorship of art fairs, which now often includes luxury goods displays in the VIP lounges. “When you’re greeted by a display of watches by Bachon Constantine and jewels from Bulgari, it is a distraction and out of place,” she says. “It debases the intellectual experience.”
However, she says there is a big difference between that kind of marketing and “true collectors and visionaries like Miuccia Prada”. The art expert reserves special praise for the Prada Foundation’s recreation at the 2013 Venice Biennale of a landmark 1969 exhibition of conceptual, minimal, post-minimal and arte povera artists who defined art-making in the late 20th century. “For someone like me who was born too late to experience this landmark exhibition that was a spectacular thing for Miuccia to do,” she says.
“I adore what she does,” adds Cromwell. “I think she is a consummate connoisseur and has really not conflated what she built as a brand and her business.”