Brands Like Nike and PepsiCo Are the New Art Patrons

Major companies are now fulfilling the role that wealthy individuals once did. And it’s causing some tension in the art community.

Dali with mustache made up of Nike logos
Pete Ryan

When PepsiCo decided to create a new premium water brand last year, it came up with LIFEWTR—a clear plastic bottle with a black cap and a colorful, eclectic series of labels designed by emerging artists. Art is a central part of the LIFEWTR brand. Through it, PepsiCo also donates art supplies to public schools and has endowed a $100,000 annual fund for the Brooklyn Museum to purchase new works.

PepsiCo is only the latest example of a brand making substantial, and sometimes surprising, new investments in art and artists. BMW has been producing Art Cars since 1975, Absolut has had artists design its vodka bottles since 1986, and Louis Vuitton has commissioned collections of handbags by artists such as Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, and Jeff Koons since 2003. But the phenomenon of brands positioning themselves as patrons of creative culture has accelerated in recent years, driven, it seems, by the rise of visual-centric social media and the merging of contemporary art with mainstream pop culture. Facebook, Kickstarter, and Adobe host artists-in-residence in their offices, and most WeWork locations commission a mural from local street artists. Dolby invites artists to constantly reconceive its logo. Nike regularly unveils sneakers designed by artists, and sponsors new media installations in cities like Hong Kong. Calvin Klein recently engaged the artist Sterling Ruby to redesign its flagship boutiques in Manhattan and Paris. Uniqlo not only puts art on T-shirts, but sponsors a grant for public artworks in New York City’s parks. Earlier this year, OkCupid tapped the Italian conceptual artists Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari to design a marketing campaign.

The relationship between art and commerce has always been filled with anxiety. The speculative art model, in which the lone genius creates a painting in her studio and later seeks a buyer, has existed for scarcely more than a hundred years. For centuries before that, artists created bespoke works following the explicit instructions of a client, be that the church, a king, or a wealthy merchant. Even in the modern art market, the tastes of collectors and institutions have influenced what artists make. Though artists aspire to create “art for art’s sake” instead of for the vulgar marketplace, even the most radical avant-garde creators have been tethered to the bourgeoisie, as the art critic Clement Greenberg put it in 1939, by “an umbilical cord of gold.”

The question “What if Nike is the new Medicis?” began as an art-world in-joke about a decade ago, but has grown less absurd over time. With the diminishing impact of traditional advertising, companies are seeking new ways to capture the attention and goodwill of the public. In exchange, brands provide financial opportunities to emerging artists. “In some ways, the goals are a little amorphous,” Natasha Degen, a historian of the art market at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, told me. “The lines are becoming very blurred between corporate social responsibility, philanthropy, and marketing.” In a vacuum of meaningful public-arts funding, and in contrast to the stratified commercial art market, brands have the potential to be an alternative pillar of support for artists. Can this new gray area be called patronage, and if so, what would that mean for art?

Over my career as an art critic, curator, and strategist, I’ve observed this shifting landscape up close. In 2009, I was working in Beijing as the studio manager for the artist Cao Fei when she was approached by Hermés to make a film for the brand’s traveling exhibition “HBOX.” I knew Cao to be uncompromising in all aspects of her vision, so I was initially surprised that she’d consider the project. Then she explained that the brand was giving her carte blanche—she just had to put its logo in the end credits. As she saw it, Hermés was essentially paying her to make a video she would have made anyway—and, in paying her a significant fee, would also fund another more experimental project she wanted to do.

Cao genuinely enjoys tinkering with brands, mass culture, and, by extension, the infrastructure of capitalism itself. She had previously created a project called Whose Utopia, as part of a residency sponsored by Siemens in its light-bulb factory in Guangzhou, in which she collaborated with workers to make a film about their personal dreams and lives outside of the assembly line. More recently, Cao has collaborated with BMW (which commissioned her to make a highly experimental Art Car in 2017) and, the Chinese online retail giant (which she approached directly for logistical, not financial, support in making Asia One, a new film currently on view at the Guggenheim that considers the future of automation and human-robot interactions).

She has joked that, in designing her art car, she was the most “demanding” artist BMW ever worked with, continually pushing back on the collaboration to make it more interesting to her. She insisted on visiting BMW’s Chinese factories and meeting their workers, to understand more about how they run their business in China.

“For me, it’s a kind of art education for the company,” Cao told me recently. “These companies are so big and influence our whole society. If an artist can influence one of them, change them even a little bit, then even if they’re still just selling a product it might be more human.” She sees the entire process as a form of social research, and finds meaning, and perhaps a kind of Robin Hood–esque satisfaction, in the interplay. “That is the interesting point,” she said. “How the brand and artist are fighting.”

A drawing of paint brushes and tubes of paint
Pete Ryan

In the years since I worked for Cao Fei, I’ve worked on projects for brands such as Converse, Ford, Absolut, Airbnb, and Gucci. (I even helped co-found a publication that analyzes such collaborations through interviews with the brands and artists involved.) In my experience, working with a brand has most of the same trade-offs as with any other source of funding. There’s the need to diplomatically shape expectations, negotiate careful contracts, manage different communication styles, and ultimately protect artists—who are often the most vulnerable party in the equation—and their vision. I’ve found that while it’s easy to be cynical about a project funded by a brand that sells handbags or energy drinks, it’s useful to investigate one’s visceral reactions and to see these initiatives in a broader historical and economic context.

In a precarious economy, a growing number of young artists similar to Cao Fei see value in projects with ties to brands. “The notion that somebody is selling out to do that kind of collaboration”—a typical reaction in years past—“has completely fallen away,” Martha Buskirk, an art historian at Montserrat College of Art, told me. She observed that the “professionalization” of being an artist has made art school more essential, which means more artists are starting their careers with MFAs—and the hefty debt that entails. Also, as studio rents in urban areas have risen, “there’s not a lot of room for idealism that ignores how to make a living.”

Still others are attracted by the possibility to share their art with a wider audience, and to blur the distinctions between “pop” and “high” art. Shantell Martin, an artist who recently designed her third collection of shoes and apparel with Puma and has worked with other brands including Autodesk and Warby Parker, finds that in comparison to traditional exhibitions at galleries or museums, brand collaborations are often “more accessible and visible for much longer” to a broad public. Also, she said, “you’re able to make something you would not be able to make as an individual,” such as large-scale manufacturing of shoes or sunglasses.

However, artists are struggling to navigate the asymmetrical power relationship with large corporations, and to weave these one-off projects into a sustainable career. With no standardized fees, contracts, or best practices, artists are typically left to negotiate and advocate for themselves with little leverage. “They expect you to be super-professional on your side, but then they’re unprofessional on their side,” Amalia Ulman, a new-media artist based in Los Angeles who has collaborated with brands in the past (including two collaborations that I worked on, for Gucci and Airbnb), told me. In some cases, she said, companies have canceled large commissions at the last minute without any payment. “They can decline the project with almost no notice, or compensation, or anything.”

What’s more, some artists and critics are concerned that this influx of branded capital may prioritize certain kinds of art production over others —i.e., works that are shiny, colorful, and Instagrammable, instead of conceptual, political, and challenging. It’s true that most branded projects don’t allow artists to approach sensitive topics such as sex, violence, or political critique—or meta-critique of the brand itself (though a memorable exception was a video by the Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury depicting the destruction of Chanel handbags, included in the 2008 Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion). Ulman has often been frustrated by these restrictions. “For a brand to be able to work with an artist,” she said, “they can’t expect the artist to do something that is not art.” The brand has to allow the artist breathing room. “If you’re already telling them what font to use,” she said, “then what’s the point?”

Of course, art history reminds us that patrons of every era have shaped aesthetic trends and set the bounds of political expression. In countries like China, unbridled creative speech has never been guaranteed, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that artists there were among the first to be less sentimental and more pragmatic about both the benefits and limitations of this type of partnership—a sensibility that then filtered into other places. In addition, there’s a potential benefit in having these stakeholders and transactions so transparently mapped out. Sean Raspet, who is interested in blurring the distinction between the art economy and rest of the economy, told me, “The content of a work of art might be a very radical politics, but then the economics of the work is still selling to the .001%, as an object for a collector to speculate on.” If an artist is working with a consumer brand, then “at least the cards are on the table, and there isn’t this much of a disconnect between where the money’s coming from and how the artist is functioning.”

Raspet is going especially far in muddling these categories. As an artist and self-taught flavor chemist, in 2015 he went to work in the R&D department at Rosa Labs, the company that manufactures the beverage Soylent, to develop new flavors. (Rosa Labs introduced one of them, Nectar, to its product line, but it is now discontinued.) His contract stipulated that the artificial flavors he designed there were technically his own artworks, and could be displayed (and sold) as such in the future, though Raspet has not done so yet.

In the 1961 essay “The Plight of Culture,” Clement Greenberg wrote that in premodern societies with no clear boundary between “work” and “leisure,” “work and culture tend to be fused in a single functional complex”—uniting art, religion, craft, and the techniques of production. In the postindustrial age, as labor and leisure collapse once more, Greenberg speculated that work and culture will likely merge again. The new wave of brand patronage may be less a cause than a reflection of this change.

Perhaps in coming years, artists will complete the shift,  from making functionless objects for rich people to shaping daily life for the masses. In that process, some artists might circumvent the need for the brand-patron altogether. Raspet eventually left Rosa Labs to found his own experimental sustainable-food company called Nonfood, which makes things like an algae-based snack bar—a conceptual artwork, a political gesture and, at the same time, a product. How does it taste? Like nothing else on the market.