Creative Leadership Finds Common Ground For Business And The Arts

In the years following the American Revolution, artists in the United States faced a difficult choice. Most were patriots, proud of their new country and eager to contribute to its success. Instead of being embraced, however, they found themselves shunned. Political leaders such as John Adams and Benjamin Rush argued that the fine arts were a dangerous influence, enticing citizens away from the vital project of nation-building towards corrupting luxury. Artists themselves were often viewed as social parasites, contributing little of value to the new nation.

Portraitists John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West had traveled to England before the war to study their craft. Neither returned home. Others, like Charles Willson Peale, remained in America, determined to win over skeptics and carve out a legitimate and productive space. Peale tried many ways to do that, creating some of the first models of government financing, public support and commercial affiliations for the arts. But he remained frustrated throughout his career, never gaining financial security or artistic acceptance.

Nearly 250 years later, artists are still searching for their place. Countries around the world have different models of engaging with the arts. In Europe, the government — local and national — takes the lead. In America, a mix of foundation grants and private donations provide the most support. Admission fees and ticket purchases contribute a smaller percentage. What has not received much attention, however, is the possibility of a mutually beneficial relationship between business and the arts, two dynamic engines of invention in our age.

There's no formula or roadmap to this kind of cooperation, but that hasn't kept some corporations and arts organizations from forging partnerships that bring value to both sides. Conversations with leaders from UBS, BMW, the Guggenheim Museum and Art Basel reveal four principles that make these partnerships successful and suggest how others can build on their efforts.

A healthy relationship between business and the arts is a partnership, not a transaction.

The global carmaker BMW has been working with cultural organizations for more than 50 years. From opera companies to museums to art fairs, BMW seeks out organizations whose reputation and commitment to excellence mirrors their own. "If you are a premium car manufacturer with a sense of leadership in your core industry, that is also what you want to exude in the cultural realm. You enter into partnerships with institutions that have the same reputation in the art world that you pride yourself on having in the automotive industry," said Thomas Girst, BMW Global Head of Cultural Engagement. Dr. Nicolas Peter, BMW Chief Financial Officer, reinforced that sentiment, "Does the partnership transmit our values? That's important. Everything we support and every partnership we enter into has to be in-line with our core values."

Noah Horowitz, Director of Art Basel Americas, pointed out that partnerships can also effectively leverage the knowledge and expertise of both parties. "The Art Market Report, authored by Clare McAndrew, that we co-publish with UBS, is a great example of our commitment towards supporting up-to-date research, metrics and information on where the art market is now. It highlights our relationship with UBS and illustrates how we collaborate on the production of content."

A company's motivation to partner with arts organizations emerges from leadership but is sustained by culture.

Thomas Girst believes that BMW's long tradition of partnering with the arts is a matter of a carefully considered trajectory. Each leader builds on what has come before. "There are not many companies that have been active in the cultural field for so long. What you do in culture should not be based on the current taste of senior management."

For John Mathews, Head of Private Wealth Management and Ultra High Net Worth, UBS Wealth Management USA, engagement with the arts is woven into the fabric of UBS. "I think it comes from a company's culture, but without the right leadership it can start to fade. The leadership of our organization truly believes in art — not only as a way to help our clients but to inspire our own employees."

A business and arts partnership can be long-term, but it takes careful attention and self-awareness.

Professionals in business and the arts often have divergent outlooks, goals, education and experience. Because of that, those who are invested in a sustainable partnership should seek mutual understanding but also be comfortable with a certain tension.

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, addressed this point of difference:

"Successful collaborations bring together arts organizations and corporations as peers. While our vocabularies and dialects may be different, they can be concentric. Getting there often pushes each of us into areas we may be unfamiliar with, and that calls for courage on both sides. For the Guggenheim, these relationships have been catalysts for reaching beyond our museum walls to design bold, sometimes unwieldy, and often surprising initiatives that have allowed us to look at the world with fresh eyes and, we hope, come away with new vision. In the case of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, UBS took the leap with us to explore and engage with contemporary art and artists in areas of the world traditionally underrepresented in the art history canon — collecting work, exchanging knowledge, and advancing the conversation about collecting and representing global art in ways that have far greater impact than any we could have achieved on our own."

"You should not be afraid to embrace something that might be controversial," said Thomas Girst, explaining the need for companies to take risks with culture. He pointed to BMW's choice of Danish sculptor Olafur Eliasson for its 2007 Art Car, a project where Eliasson stripped away the metal skin of a BMW H2R and encased the prototype hydrogen-powered vehicle in ice. "If we move from being a car company to being a mobility provider, to being a tech company, we had better take these paradigmatic shifts into account when it comes to our cultural engagement."


When business and the arts work together, the learning will take unexpected forms — and that's good.

Art Basel Cities is an experimental initiative to focus the attention of the international art world onto a culture-rich location that has not traditionally enjoyed the spotlight. Working with business partners such as UBS and cities such as Buenos Aires (for the September 2018 inaugural event), the project aims to generate cultural and economic opportunities for overlooked regions and their vibrant art scene.

"It's an incredibly interesting and new type of adventure for us," said Art Basel's Noah Horowitz. "We're going beyond the production of art fairs and forging a close collaboration with the city administration, working with them to get the word out about what's happening within the private and public cultural sectors, and, in turn, to create a more substantive support structure for the local art scene."

Sometimes, however, it's the relationship itself — between art and business — that models a key message. "If you want to do something great, you have to collaborate and work with others," explained UBS's John Mathews. "That's why we're not afraid to partner and work with other institutions to help our clients. We encourage them to do the same with other experts around their investments or life issues."

Why do corporations invest in long-term partnerships with arts organizations? For brand visibility, for the associated prestige, to connect with a specific customer demographic, and, according to the Guggenheim's Richard Armstrong, "certain corporations have taken it upon themselves to be a big brother or big sister of living culture and high culture. Those elements are crucial. We all have an interest in civilization."

"There is no law that asks companies to get involved in culture," said BMW's Thomas Girst. "But whether it's engaging in art that resonates with our potential target groups, or being a corporate citizen and making culture possible for those who can't afford it, if you create the right projects together you will make the world a better place. We should all try for that."

Published here on

December 5, 2018