András Szántó on the Brand-Patronage Continuum

Photo: Thomas Ling

Photo: Thomas Ling

András Szántó is a brand advisor, curator, scholar, who has helped to design and continues to advise some of the most respected brand-initiated cultural projects for over a decade. In 2016, along with two partners he launched Culture Projects, which publishes original research on art and culture trends, including a survey of international brands’ engagement with the arts. Here, Szántó shares his thoughts on the lineage of brand patronage and the artist’s relationship with patrons.

Taking the historical view, patronage has existed as long as art has existed. Great resources and great power have always gravitated to art and the symbolic communication it affords. Brands are the latest in a long line of patrons who have supported artists. And in historical comparison, they don’t stack up so poorly

I am by nature someone who sees perforated walls between institutions, whereas others may see hard and hazardous boundaries. Likewise, when it comes to timelines, I am less inclined to recognize clear-cut thresholds and more inclined to notice certain phenomena echoing and fading in and out of view over time. I was originally trained as a sociologist, so I see the art world as a system in which everything connects.
For the same reasons, widely held notions about a kind of “holy side” and “unholy side” to the art world are, in my eyes, a manifestation of culturally entrenched, but ultimately simplistic and somewhat outdated attitudes. There is no doubt that many people consider patronage by brands suspicious. There is a degree of anxiety around them; certainly in the art press. Such blanket judgments, to put it generously, reflect a considerable degree of historical amnesia. 

In terms of scale, you can call today’s broadening of art-brand collaboration a new phenomenon. I am not as convinced whether these collaborations are truly new in substance, however. After all, the church, the royal courts, even the great bourgeois collecting families were brands of a certain kind, and so are museums. If you are willing to stretch the conventional definition of the term, then you can point to a long history of interesting interfaces between art and institutional brands of different kinds, each of which has involved bringing one set of interests and values into alignment with another. 

By historical standards, as art historians have pointed out, the expectation that artists should be free to make art works exactly how they like is strikingly new. Unique circumstances in the late 19th century gave rise to an art world in which artists were free to “paint what they think best and then look around for a buyer," as the late great historian Michael Baxandall put it (Baxandall 1972, “Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy”). A long century of culturally consecrated artistic autonomy followed, which also shaped our world view on these matters, but which was, in fact, mere blip on the temporal horizon. 

Through much of history, artists were more like bespoke tailors, crafting paintings by following established templates and in line with their patrons’ tastes and specifications. Art-brand collaborations fit to some degree into this longer trajectory of patronage, although with considerably more prestige afforded to the artist. Artists in this scenario are not doing whatever they want in their studio, then sending the work out, via a gallery, to an anonymous marketplace. They know who their patron is. They are entering a specific relationship. They are developing the work in kind of dialogue. Some extraordinary works have resulted from these relationships.