Larys Frogier on the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award and Changing Brand-Museum Partnerships

 Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

Larys Frogier is a curator, critic, art historian, and director of Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) in Shanghai. Earlier in October, the exhibition of the four finalist artists for 2017’s Hugo Boss Asia Art Award opened at RAM, showcasing the third success in the partnership between the brand and the museum. Last week, Hangzhou-based video artist Li Ming was announced as the award's recipient for his immersive multi-channel narrative installation. Here, Frogier shares the history of the award and his views on the surprising prospects of corporate sponsorship for museums in Asia today. 

How did you come to found the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award?

It was quite soon after I started as director of the Rockbund Art Museum, in January, 2012, that Hugo Boss contacted me. They were already interested in implementing a project related to emerging artists in Asia, along with their business development in these areas. And we started the exchange by asking questions: How could we conceive of the project? How would it sit with the position of the museum? And with the program of the museum, which was undergoing a shift at the time?

What is the benefit to a museum like the Rockbund in working with a brand like Hugo Boss, other than the obvious financial support?

Visibility and credibility for the prize. When we launched the project, I was interested in making the museum a research center for Asia, drawing on the Asian cultural studies happening in Japan and Singapore, but it was not necessarily the obvious choice at the time, so the appearance of Hugo Boss provided a possibility that would come with visibility and credibility from outside of our region. The international reputation of Hugo Boss, including the Hugo Boss Prize awarded by the Guggenheim, was very important here.

How do you see the state of relationships between brand or corporate sponsors and museums in China, in your peer institutions? You mentioned earlier that some private museums turn corporate sponsorship into an exhibition of the product.

Yes, this happens sometimes when they work with luxury brands just to get more money. Many brands have come to us, and we have always refused their sponsorship, unless we can find a mutual understanding of our vision and targets. But it’s not true that you can simply say, “No.” How do you infiltrate the system in which economic realities force the art industry to depend on these sponsorships? You must do it in a way that benefits your own curatorial or artistic challenges.

Have you had any other positive experiences beyond the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award?

It's very interesting now that the corporations are also trying to shift the lines of what their sponsorship means. It has changed a lot over the past three years. A few years ago the brands were just trying to make projects happen, give some money, and have this kind of marketing promotion. Now, many are trying to conceive specific art programs that involve more complex or subtle ways to raise an understanding of their brands. They want to have connections with artists and produce art works, and then sometimes they want the exclusive right to promote these works for a period of several years. They are acting almost like an institution somewhere between a museum and a gallery. Brands have created a new position for themselves between the institutions and the market.

Where do you stand on that? Is it threatening from the perspective of the museum?

It brings more opportunities. They need to be carefully checked, but at least there are new opportunities. Maybe the word sponsorship is no longer the right one, because we're not talking only about giving support anymore. It's a full framework in which the institution goes beyond the institution and the brand goes beyond the brand. What's most exciting is that this is an unknown area, which may make something new possible.