Red Bull's Max Wolf on Art and Energy

Photo: Installation View, Bjarne Melgaard,  The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment , 2017, Red Bull Arts New York. Photography by Andre Herrero.

Photo: Installation View, Bjarne Melgaard, The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment, 2017, Red Bull Arts New York. Photography by Andre Herrero.

Earlier this year Max Wolf oversaw the transition of Red Bull Studios to Red Bull Arts, where he is now Chief Curator. The exhibition program is wildly experimental and, unlike many brand-backed art foundations, embraces its freedom from the art market and collecting system, emphasizing richly ephemeral and experiential shows and events. Wolf sees corporate support as an important supplement to the art world, offering new routes for artists to realize important ideas.

How did you get involved with Red Bull Arts?

Red Bull reached out to me after I left Artnet in  2013, and although I was skeptical that the concept could ever work, I knew there was a serious necessity and potential in the model. The prospect of getting decent funding behind exhibitions and programming that traditional exhibition making models might shy away from, and that didn’t depend on the primary or secondary market was exciting to me - the privilege of doing ambitious shows that pushed artist’s practices, and challenged the audience, all while being free and open to the public is a pretty cool thing.
How does Red Bull evaluate the performance of Red Bull Arts?

The Red Bull Arts program is a bit different then some of Red Bulls other cultural initiatives -  much of which rely on concert attendance, ticket revenue, or traditional media coverage -  and therefore enlists a host of additional qualitative metrics. The program’s success hinges on the real substantive opportunities we can provide artists and the depth and quality of cultural programming we can provide to the public. When evaluating the success of these types of sweeping objectives there aren’t always tangible signifiers, but you know when you are doing something that has impact and we strive for those moments.  In the end, Red Bull wants to ensure a sustained commitment to the cultivation and advancement of the arts in some way, and they understand that that is not something that happens over night.
There are various quantitative measurements that I assume most organizations gauge when evaluating the performance of a program - visitor attendance, press, etc. While the go-to metric of media impressions is considered, it is a bit flawed, and the company knows how to weight meaningful coverage even if it doesn’t tip the impressions scales, so its not really a numbers game in the end and Red Bull is well aware of those nuances in this context.

How would you describe your exhibition program? From Bjarne Melgaard to DIS to Mel Chin, many projects deal with branding in oblique ways.

We try to measure the strength of our program by its balance, its breadth, and the diversity of audiences we are engaging: How can we be a platform for progressive emerging voices, but also be able to shed light on important historical and social themes. We look for ideas that are challenging, ideas that might be crazy or bad ideas, a project or a concept that no one really wanted to do. There is a real freedom and empowerment that Red Bull encourages, take chances, the freedom to fail. There is a faith and understanding pushing and expanding the boundaries of exhibition making. It's less sometimes about the artist, but the ideas that are being hatched. 

In regards to Mel and Dis and Bjarne, we are well aware of who we are in the grand scheme of things and the conversation our patronage can elicit – so we encourage that dialog, we don’t shy away from that self-criticality. These are also relevant themes that many artists are addressing, outside of simply our program.