Sponsoring art exhibitions is usually more than a philanthropic gesture, unless, of course, you’re part of the Getty clan. Michael Evamy talks to a consultancy which has found that backing artists proves to be a shrewd move, both financially and as a PR exercise Evamy
Arts sponsorship occasionally throws up some odd couples. Take ArtNow, the series of contemporary artworks on display at the Tate Gallery in London.
GeneviÃ¨ve Cadieux’s Broken Memory must be one of the most troubling pieces of art the Tate has ever offered. The third in this specially commissioned series of five works by different artists, Broken Memory features a wide, empty glass box, several feet high, with steeply sloping sides. From speakers mounted in the sides come the sounds of a lone woman apparently in abject despair. The room is filled with intermittent groaning, sustained sobbing, wailing and weeping. After a few seconds, the mind begins to speculate on the origin of this woman’s grief, and a sense of discomfort and uselessness takes over. It is a work that seems to polarise the sexes: the only other people in the room with me were half a dozen women, all seated, mesmerised.
One of ArtNow’s sponsors is HÃ¤agen-Dazs. I tried in vain to square the image of slobbering gymnastic twosomes in the ice-cream maker’s advertising with Cadieux’s vision of suffering and loneliness. It’s unwise to conclude anything about an art sponsor from the content of the art.
Neither is it worth worrying over the fact that art is little more to most corporate sponsors than a minor item in the marketing budget. Just be thankful, as galleries are, that they cough up at all.
There is more empathy between contemporary art and ArtNow’s other sponsor, CDT Design. A design consultancy of rare intelligence, CDT supports work by “important” artists, such as Anish Kapoor at the Tate (in 1990) and Cindy Sherman at the Whitechapel Gallery (in 1992), as well as ArtNow’s exposure of lesser-known talents. The significance of CDT’s involvement with the Tate is that it is a unique arrangement for a consultancy, but one which has proved rewarding to the company, both philosophically and commercially.
Post-war design has experienced a parasitic relationship with art rather than a symbiotic one. It is easy to trace the way visual arts have enriched design, but less easy to find occasions where artists have said anything good about design. Where artists have appropriated designs it has usually been to parody them or to adopt flags, logos and advertising products as symbols of a hated consumer culture.
CDT is doing its bit to redress the balance. “All designers draw on art,” confirms CDT partner Nick Thirkell. “We do in our work. And we support cutting-edge art, even though we may not put it in our own work. So it’s just putting our money where our mouth is.” And since 1990 CDT has committed 50 000 to the display of new art. That’s a larger proportion of its income than most major corporate sponsors can manage.
CDT’s motives are not exclusively philanthropic. Art is a very useful door-opener for a consultancy with a client list bulging with art institutions and blue-chip companies with an interest in the arts. At social events Thirkell meets sponsors from large businesses who often have some appreciation of good design. He is introduced not as a supplier, and therefore a potential nuisance, but as a fellow patron of the arts. CDT has recouped its investment. “It’s a roundabout way to get work, but it has paid off. If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t carry on. We have to make sure it gets a commercial return,” he explains.
CDT’s sponsorship makes sense, not least in the association it re-establishes between contemporary art and design. The support of art by design consultants lies at the root of the consultancy industry. A founding director of the Design Research Unit, arguably the UK’s first modern consultancy, was Herbert Read, an authority on the development of twentieth century art. Read once persuaded a car manufacturer to commission a design for a “post-war car” from sculptor Naum Gabo.
Although it would make a change to see a design consultancy subcontract Damien Hirst to design fish tanks for MFI, or see Rachel Whiteread turn interior designer, I’m not holding my breath.
But if designers are as concerned about the future of fine art as they have been in the past, they could hardly do less than they are doing now.