How brands will benefit from engaging with art and culture

Sondra Perry ‘It’s in the Game’ 2018, Rosco Chroma Key blue, projected video, spalding universal shot trainers © Sondra Perry

‘It is in this time, more than ever, we should be listening to artists,’ says Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of Serpentine Galleries, London. ‘It is often they who have the most important and prescient ideas about how one can act in times of crisis.’

He is, of course, referring to the Covid-crisis and to many sectors of the visual and performing arts that are finding themselves temporarily paralysed by this pandemic. The creative community is in much need of public and private patronage and Obrist has been in the position to guide and mentor a select group of artists through the Rolls-Royce ‘Dream Commission’.

Aimed at emerging and mid-career creatives who demonstrate innovation in the field of moving-image art, applicants for this new philanthropic initiative have been asked to investigate their subconscious for alternative sensory narratives. They need to deliver artwork that is impactful and immersive.

The four shortlisted artists – chosen by Obrist and an independent jury of leading international figures in the art world – create relevant and daring work. Beatriz Santiago Muñoz from Puerto Rico, Zhou Tao from China and the American artists Martine Syms and Sondra Perry are involved with current discussions on culture, on gender and race, and on the human relation to machine learning and technology.

‘The commission acts as a laboratory for artists,’ explains Obrist. ‘What has become evident is that this next generation is thinking about mixed reality, and quite radically liberating moving image away from defining characteristics such as its loop, works become instead infinite, sprawling and organic.’

Zhou Tao, Still from “North of the mountain”, 2019 © Zhou Tao

There is certainly a case for harnessing the exploratory and experimental language of art as a way of understanding the contemporary world. Then on a more visceral level, the arts are exciting – they can be beautiful, move you, be experiential and fun. The arts are the luxuries of life. But does cultural philanthropy also play a subtle role in highlighting elements of a company’s brand identity?

‘We would always like to find ourselves on the side where we are creating things that really matter and where we can make a difference,’ says BMW Group’s head of cultural engagement Thomas Girst. His brand is deeply engaged with the arts, sponsoring galleries, musical orchestras and festivals – Art Basel, London Symphony Orchestra, Frieze Art, Paris Photo, Art D’Égypte all benefit greatly from this patronage. ‘And while it is about the image of the brand and the reputation,’ he explains, ‘it is also about corporate citizenship. It would be obscene to measure this with, say, car sales. With our cultural engagement, we want to open up to a much broader audience.’

In the absence of an actual manual for corporate cultural management, brands wanting to get involved with the arts, need to ensure the relationship is authentic. Girst is himself an art historian and an author which in turn lends a level of credibility to these philanthropic ventures. He offers this in guidance: ‘Companies need to define the corners in which they can engage, so it isn’t a case of throwing money at an institution and them singing your song. The strategy must be based on your company’s values. You cannot fake authenticity. It needs to be something meaningful. It has to be a sustainable cultural engagement,’ he says.

For Rolls-Royce, the archetype luxury brand, investing in the non-tangibles – on the right experiences and associations – is fundamental to defining its place as a leader within this landscape. It means at times being daring, provocative even – as is the case with the ‘Dream Commission’. Pushing limits is a great show of brand confidence.

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Still from “That which identifies them, like the eye of the cyclops”, 2016 © Beatriz Santiago Muñoz

Jessica Persson Conway heads up the Rolls-Royce ‘Muse’ arts programme. She says cultural engagement is vital for her brand, whilst making clear that her team do not steer the creative process. ‘It is imperative that the artists are being afforded complete creative freedom so that these works are authentic and credible,’ she says. ‘Supporting artists means Rolls-Royce can help those who are developing the language of tomorrow’s art.’ Through these initiatives, her customers can also connect directly with the artistic community.

Rolls-Royce will finance the full-length moving-image artwork of the winning ‘Dream Commission’ artist to be released in 2021. Obrist says of the four contenders: ‘Their work is very different, but it is all generous, engaged and empathetic’. He quotes from philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s critical 1964 book ‘Understanding Media’: ‘Art is an early alarm system pointing us to new developments in times ahead and allowing us to prepare to cope with them’. Obrist says of the four Rolls-Royce shortlisted artists, ‘they make work that will help us understand the world that is to come.’ Nargess Banks

Images from top: Sondra Perry ‘It’s in the Game’ 2018, Rosco Chroma Key blue, spalding universal shot trainers © Aurelien Mole/Sondra Perry; Zhou Tao still from ‘North of the mountain’ 2019 © Zhou Tao; Beatriz Santiago Muñoz still from ‘That which identifies them, like the eye of the cyclops’ 2016 © Beatriz Santiago Muñoz; Martine Syms from ‘Threat modelling’ Whitney Biennial 2019, Whitney Museum of American Art © Martine Syms, photo Gregory Carideo.

Spinach Branding is a specialist branding agency based in London. We work with established businesses and start-ups around the world to build and refine their brands. See how we work and get in touch to discuss your brand.

Martine Syms, Intro to “Threat modeling”, 2019, Whitney Biennial 2019, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2019 © Martine Syms, Whitney Museum of American Art, Photo by Gregory Carideo
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