This story is over 5 years old.


[#DIGART] Are Brands The New Medicis?

Brands are bankrolling a large chunk of the digital arts sector under the guise of advertising campaigns. Do we have a new art patronage model on our hands?

This week we’re exploring the Digital Arts Market (or lack thereof). We’re asking the tough questions: What will it take for a sustainable digital arts market to form? Is that even a possibility? Can the digital arts make money? And will they ever be incorporated into the contemporary arts dialogue? We invite you to participate in the discussion in the comments section, on your own blog (send us the link!), and on Facebook and Twitter (#DIGART). Let's get the conversation started!


Art has always had a complicated relationship with commerce. Back in the days of the Renaissance, most art was commissioned by the church or by the aristocracy, exalting either religious figures, politicians or ladies and gentlemen of the court. But over the years, as power dynamics and fortunes have shifted and changed hands, brands have come to play a bigger role in art patronage—for better or worse. You'll be hard pressed to find a museum exhibition these days without a smattering of sponsor logos adorning the entryway, and as grants and government or institution-funded commissions become increasingly difficult to come by, it's brands that are bankrolling a large number of creative and artistic projects, especially in the digital arts sector.

Often times, these are straight-up advertising and PR stunts—a series of virals for Sony Playstation announcing their new movie streaming feature, a kinetic sculpture highlighting the sleek shape of a luxury car, a jaw-dropping feat of projection mapping—but even the most brand-centric among these often blurs the line between commercial and creative effort and taps into some of the best creative tech talent around.

The Benefits of Working With Brands: Your R&D Is Paid For

Most digital artists we spoke to said they spend about 50% of their time working on commercial projects and the rest of the time balancing their personal, artistic pursuits with some research and development. But since branded projects often come with a bigger budget and access to the best tools and talent, taking on an exciting client brief often serves as R&D in and of itself.


“A lot of new technology is expensive, so advertising provides me with the opportunity to play with that technology and make something cool and artful,” says Kenzo of Kenzo Digital Media, who previously worked as a Creative Director for Weiden + Kennedy before leaving to focus on his own studio. “One of the things I am most interested in is the convergence of video games and film. Advertising gives me the opportunity to create things that point towards a vision of the future that I have in my head. These are chances to experiment and understand the technology, whereas my personal projects allow me to explore more conceptually and make uncompromised work that points towards the kinds of stories and ideas that really define my voice. Having both of these work in tandem can be powerful.”

Kenzo Digital directed this short film commissioned by Casio/G-Shock to launch the latest G-Shock watch designed by Dee & Ricky.

Memo Akten, a visual artist based in the UK who is a frequent collaborator with Creators Quayola and Mira Calix, describes a similar symbiotic relationship between his client-commissioned and personal projects.

“I’m always developing ideas and identifying areas that I want to explore. I’ll start to investigate these in personal projects. Someone might see one of these projects and contact me for a similar approach in a commercial project. I might see this as a good opportunity to investigate further, so I’ll try and shape the brief in a direction that I want to explore. It’s quite common that during the production of a project, many new ideas may come out (creative, or technical, or both), and these may evolve to a point where it starts to diverge away from the initial project. For a commercial project, you can’t meander too much for too long. You eventually have to deliver something which is remotely similar to what you promised. So I’ll narrow it down and focus, while taking down notes of any additional new ideas and directions for future work—personal or commercial. After the project is finished, I’ll revisit some of the unexplored ideas that were born out of it. I might develop them into personal projects, or apply to other commercial projects, and the cycle continues!”


How To Walk The Branded/Artistic Divide

In the art world, branded projects can often be stigmatized as creatively and morally bankrupt, but as high-profile brand collaborations become increasingly common (see: Takashi Murakami’s Louis Vuitton project and Jeff Koons’ BMW Art Car), it seems the cross-pollination between art and advertising is no longer quite as scandalizing. In the world of digital art, these pairings make even more sense, as only brands can offer artists the opportunity to work at the scale and level of production quality much of this tech-forward work requires. If you’re in the business of inventing the future, partnering with a brand isn’t the worst thing you could do for yourself, and many of these artists have become adept at navigating client and agency briefs to weed out the opportunities for innovation from the “tech execution” dregs.

“Brands have a lot to offer artists,” says Akten. “At the most obvious level, in terms of finance; but also in production, management, technical knowhow, and perhaps even very specialist skills unique to the operations of that brand. In return, artists have a lot to offer brands, in terms of reaching new audiences and building brand value… A criteria which I try to stick to, is ‘would I do this project even if I wasn’t being paid?’ If you can answer yes to this question, then even the commercial work you’re doing borders on personal work, just funded by a commercial entity.”


Memo Akten and his collaborators in MarshmallowLaserFeast created a series of highly successful virals for Sony PlayStation.

Anthony Rowe from Squidsoup, an international interaction design studio, believes it’s the artist’s responsibility to understand what the brand needs from them and determine whether it’s something they are comfortable with executing. “There is a broad range of commercial projects; some leave a lot of room for artistic intent and integrity, others are stifling because artistic vision does not fit the client’s requirements in some way,” says Rowe. “Clients will want something specific from a project they are funding. As artists, we need to be fully aware of what these requirements are, and as much as possible to make sure they are compatible with what we want to do, both with the project and more broadly as creatives.”

What Does The Future Of The Brand-Artist Relationship Look Like?

As brands strive to be more “authentic” and “transparent,” they’re also lightening up on the logo placement and seeing the value in letting artists tell their story for them in more genuinely creative ways. Many of the artists we spoke to noted a perceived shift in the space—far more brands are happy to give creative license to the artists and are becoming open to increasingly experimental, boundary-pushing ideas.

“I think we’re seeing a rise in genuine philanthropic interest in brands supporting arts,” says Akten. “They realize the value of creating an environment that nurtures creative and critical thinking, out-of-the-box problem solving, carving fresh approaches to looking at the world, and inspiring a new generation. It’s good for mankind and it’s good for them. Ironically, this approach again boosts brand value and ROI—it’s a win-win situation. The important thing is for both sides to understand (and respect) each other. Artists do not like to be told to ‘stick my logo in there and make it big’ (no joke, this is still such an issue). But that should be ok because brand commissioned art which has been gratuitously branded will not do any favors to the brand anyway.”


Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska created the “Absolut Quartet” as part of the Absolut Machines campaign.

Rowe agrees, and hopes to see the brand-artist relationship evolve to more closely resemble the artist-curator relationship where the conversation is more focused on making the best, most interesting project possible as opposed to putting the brand’s needs first and foremost on the list of concerns.

“When you’re speaking to the commissioner or curator of an arts organization, the plethora of knowledge and context that they bring to the conversation can be so inspirational that you end up not trying to explain and defend your project to them, but they’re recontextualizing it back to you in a way that you’re developing new ideas,” says Rowe. “On the flip-side, commercial experiences tend more towards the brands asking for changes to the project so it’s more ‘on-brand,’ while the artists are pulling their hair out trying to explain and justify why those ‘seemingly minor’ changes are not actually so minor. Quite the opposite, those changes are killing the essence of the project.”

Most of the artists are content to continue their relationship with brands, especially as it continues to move towards a more collaborative, mutually beneficial approach, and hope that brands will continue to edge towards the road of funding projects as public commissions rather than as straight-up advertising stunts. Having the creative freedom to execute your own ideas without compromise is, after all, the holy grail in the world of art—not just digital art, but art in general—and is something every artist aspires to. Perhaps that branded-project-gone-viral will one one day give them the notoriety to be able to achieve the autonomy they yearn for.

“As it applies to advertising, I'm here for a specific purpose: to innovate the way we communicate through a combination of art, storytelling, and technology, and to make money so I can self fund and OWN my personal projects,” says Kenzo. “This is the animal kingdom out here, and you eat what you kill. I'm not a lion yet, but I'm not a pink-assed baboon either, no disrespect to baboons. The most destructive and romanticized myth of the modern artist is that they must be self-destructive and impulsive. The world we live in today—with a few exceptions—does not allow for that. Being an artist is the most hardcore shit ever. It requires so many skills besides creative vision (business savvy, strategic and analytical thinking, and great instinct) and there is no roadmap. I'm still learning things every day, sometimes even the hard way. But I'm in it for the long haul, so I am always thinking of the bigger picture.”