It’s part of a leader’s own personal branding: what he or she wears, eats, lives, works…The office, for example, and what’s in it. For many enlightened business leaders, embedding art in the business world has become an attractive way to showcase values and support culture.
A notable art collection has long been an essential part of a leader’s “stagecraft.” The Medicis made it an essential part of their business and political lives, supporting and commissioning Italy’s many Renaissance artists. Francois I took the practice global in 1516, inviting Leonardo DaVinci to live at the French court in the Loire Valley.
(As an historical aside, it might be interesting to note that the Tuscan painter spent the last three years of his life there, bringing three paintings – including the Mona Lisa, essentially hand-carrying it to the Louvre – with him on his three-month mile mule trek over the Alps from Florence. Leonardo’s acceptance of Francois I’s offer was probably prompted by the death of his patron, Giuliano De ‘Medici, and fierce competition in Italy for patronage from the likes of Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael.)
Leaders still use stagecraft, and art is still an essential part of it, but the modern realm over which a leader may cast his influence and his patronage has expanded geographically and exponentially. Today we speak of a “corporate personality” but it is still a kind of “noblesse oblige,” along with added pressures on today’s titans to generate business and uphold their share of socially responsible corporate activities.
Connecting Artists and Companies
Into the breach come art advisors – Dr Ellen Andrea Seehusen one of them, but different. In 2007, she left the corporate world to become an entrepreneur and started her own business, International Arts Management GmBH, a boutique global consulting and events firm that connects artists and potential corporate patrons through commissioning works of art and staging events featuring artists and their work. Her first clients were two companies for which she had worked on the “inside” for many years: Lufthansa and BMW (owners of Rolls Royce).
“I presented my idea as a kind of CSR project,” Seehusen tells me in an interview for this blog. ”Not just for customers but also for employees. You can open their minds by putting them in close contact with various forms of art.” She already knew BMW, having run the BMW Brand Centers in Munich and Berlin and staging exhibitions and a cultural program for the company between 2002-2006.
“BMW had always been involved in promoting sports – the company has its own art program based around “Art Cars” and is a sponsor of projects as Art Basel and Tate Modern. They aim more at mass PR exposure. But with Rolls Royce as part of the group, they wanted something more…so I suggested art. It was a new way to communicate with both old and new customers.”
She started with “Artist Talks” during international art fairs such as Art Basel; then Rolls Royce started commissioning – for example, a project. with British artist Isaac Julien, which Seehusen commissioned and curated.
That led to a range of client-focused activities featuring art and artists. The Rolls Royce activities have since expanded to encompass dinners with artists as speakers, an exhibit featuring the photography of Chanel design director Karl Lagerfeld (who drives a Rolls…), and a chauffer-driven drive for clients in six Rolls Royces through Impressionist locations in the St Paul de Vence region in the south of France. “Rolls Royce make only 4,000 cars a year, so this was a way of interacting with their client base,” she says.
Other early projects encompassed Europe and China – curating an exhibition for Wang Xiao Hui in Tianjin, China (2007); mounting exhibitions at the Pingyao Photo Festival (2008) and then serving as Artistic Director of the Hamburg Art Week (2010-2011).
There is a compelling business proposition in all this. Bespoke corporate programs for marketing purposes can bring in more business and enrich customer loyalty. ”This is a way for big companies to get closer to their customers,” she advises.
OK. This is indeed catering to the “1%,” but there is also a real trickle-down effect in this art world activity. For one thing, artists are commissioned to work “without restriction, “ Seehusen claims, ”in whatever medium they choose, so it’s a chance to explore. Bespoke work comes from an idea – it’s never the same.”
It comes as no surprise to learn her favorite corporate activities involve visiting an artist’s studio. “Even established artists are looking for new customers, “ she reminds me. “For the new artist, having a corporate commission, a corporate interest is an opportunity to realize a new work.”
She is constantly on the lookout for new ideas and new artists all over the world. Her client list is also worldwide, including Avalor Investment Zurich, Siemens in Munich and dwp design worldwide partnership, an architectural company in Bangkok. She also advises private collectors and holds 2-3 “salons” in her Munich offices each year. Earlier in September she kicked off the autumn art season in Munich with a show featuring the work of French photographer Bernard Plossu in her offices, located in the courtyard of “Moradellihaus“ a protected 17th-century building with facade was painted by Hermann Kaspar and IAM is in the courtyard.
Her work on behalf of Rolls Royce involves an impressive list of contemporary artists: such as Angela Bulloch; Manal al Dowayan from Saudi Arabia; Morgan Wong, Hong Kong; Carlos Rolon, USA, and Ana Maria Tavares, Brazil. For BMW, she has commissioned works from James Turrell (USA), as well as from Fabrizio Plessi, Italy, and Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Belgium.
There are also benefits to employees in Seehusen’s corporate-based programs. Though as an American from Minnesota who studied in Germany as an exchange student (ed note: she has a PhD in political science with a minor in art history, Seehusen is aware of the cultural difference between the European and the American approach to work and culture.
“In Germany, the idea of taking care of employees is seen as a social responsibility,” she says. That includes holding artist talks after work for employees, putting training programs. “It opens their minds, increases their creativity and innovation. It’s a subtle influence, but it’s there,” Seehusen opines.
Indeed, in today’s world, where debt-laden governments are forced to make hard choices between social services and museum funding, it is corporate commissions and collections which can keep works of art on public display.
That “public” today is wider than ever before. ”We’re so focused on Western art that we tend to ignore what’s going on in places like China or India or even Africa in the art scene,” Seehusen points out. “The potential is certainly there.”
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