When Advertising Is Literally Art, What Does That Make the Art?

Marketers Are Turning to Artists to Speak on Their Behalf

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The worlds of art and brands have commingled with varying degrees of ease for as long as there've been tortured souls and store shelves. As Lee Clow has pointed out, "Toulouse-Lautrec was an ad guy."
Installation view of the Lexus 460 Degrees Gallery by Arne Quinze. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion
Installation view of the Lexus 460 Degrees Gallery by Arne Quinze. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion

Is advertising art? You could argue the question indefinitely -- unless of course, as seems to be the case more frequently today, there's, like, a gallery and paintings and stuff involved.

Vehicles as art
Fashion and sneaker companies are the most obvious modern patrons of artists these days, but many larger marketers have turned to them to create or build on a brand vision. Toyota has harnessed an array of contemporary artists for the past few years not just to create ad messages for its youthful Scion brand but to make art out of the vehicles themselves -- earlier this year the company enlisted artists including David Choe to interpret the Scion xB. More recently, Scion, with agency Attik, created the "Want2BSquare" project, which included gallery shows featuring the square-themed art of several artists.

Last fall, a less-likely suspect, Lexus, launched its 460 sedan with the Lexus 460 Degrees Gallery, a showroom featuring the art of Arne Quinze, Pascuel Sisto and Miranda Lichtenstein. The exhibit traveled to New York, L.A., Miami and Chicago.

Lexus 460 show curator
So when advertising is literally art, what does that make the art? We turn for guidance to the man who has established an aesthetically pleasing foothold at the intersection of marketing and art, Sebastien Agneessens, founder of Formavision. Agneessens curated the Lexus 460 show as well as last year's Starbucks Salon, a music lounge and gallery the marketer fronted in New York. He's worked with brands like Diesel (on the brand's ongoing Denim Galleries) and Marithe & Francois Girbaud and recently published his first book, "Remastered," in which 55 classic works of art are reinterpreted by a new generation of artists.

"Today brands need to connect to people on an emotional or intellectual level," Agneessens says. "Speaking about what you have to sell is necessary, but not enough. Brands need to state who they are, share their values and build their culture so they can be understood in qualitative terms."

Fair enough, but why are more mainstream brands letting artists speak on their behalf? "The art market has become so popular that everybody is turning into a collector," says Agneessens. "Look at how many art magazines there are today. It is partly because of the appeal of investing in art, but the visual references that a lot of art uses today are close to pop culture, or even sensationalism. So people can easily relate or react to it."

Formavision
Agneessens, a gallery owner with an M.B.A. and a background in marketing at companies such as L'Oreal and Chanel, launched Formavision in 2002 when brands began to seek him out to curate their art adventures.

His latest project: a collaboration with a group of artists to create permanent installations for the New World of Coca-Cola, set to open next month in Atlanta.

Agneessens takes an active role in the creative process, collaborating with brands on the vision for art projects as well as artists. "Ironically enough," he says, "I personally prefer to work on branded art projects than for galleries. Of course, there is the constraint of being close to the brand value in the content you generate, but if you select the right artist, this should come naturally."

Does all of this mean the distinction between fine art and consumer culture is blurring? Not exactly, says Agneessens. "Rather, the frontiers between fine and pop culture are vanishing."

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and AdCritic.com. E-mail your big ideas to her at tiezzi@crain.com.
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