Last month, when a small Los Angeles art gallery called BlkMrkt opened its new show, "Sponsorship," a more-than-capacity crowd turned up. Hundreds of people (including, rumor has it, Keanu Reeves) were unable to get in before the fire marshal shut the proceedings down. Curiously, all this buzz was for an an art exhibit with no art. The visuals are just logos, chosen not for aesthetic reasons, but for monetary ones: The inclusion and display size of the logos was a matter of who agreed to sponsor the show and how much they paid.
Solicitations went out last summer to hundreds of companies, who were told they could get into the show at various sponsorship levels according to how much they were willing to pony up in cash, services, and merchandise ($500 earned "Patron of the Arts" status; $1,000 got "Bronze Medallion Status," and so on). Many of the companies who chose to play along were niche-oriented shoe or skateboard firms and the like. The bigger names included Levi's, AOL, Yahoo!, Kinko's, and Red Bull.
"Sponsorship," which is on view through March 21, aims to make an interesting point or two about the intersection of art and commerce. These days we're all used to seeing corporate names and logos lurking on museum walls just a few feet from art works. Corporate sponsorship of fine art and cultural events became gradually more widespread from the 1960s and was basically a given by 1985, when the director of New York's Metropolitan Museum commented to the New York Times, ''There is no question that because we have become dependent on corporate sponsorship, we keep an eye on which shows are likely to be funded by corporations and which are not.''
So, the motivation for the arts world to gin up sponsors is obvious. But what exactly are the corporations in it for? Sometimes the patronage payoff is pretty obvious. Dior once sponsored a Met exhibition on Christian Dior, and Tiffany sponsored a Met Tiffany show. Another Met exhibition, "The Man and the Horse," relied on a grant from Ralph Lauren of Polo fame. Mobil (now part of ExxonMobil) sponsored exhibitions of art from Cameroon, Nigeria, and other "countries we do business with," a spokeswoman for that company once explained.
In other instances the link is not as direct, but still easy to suss out. Philip Morris has been a patron of modern art since at least 1965, when it underwrote a Pop and Op Art show. In her 1999 book No Logo, Naomi Klein quoted a brand manager explaining that Tequiza had backed a "risqué" George Holz show because "art was a natural synergy with our product." This was an example, to Klein, of firms "thirstily soaking up cultural ideas and iconography that their brands could reflect by projecting these ideas and images back on the culture as 'extensions' of their brands."
What "Sponsorship" does so cleverly is simply remove culture from the equation. There's no brand extension here for the "patrons" to exploit; it's just them. The show thus takes a poke at the fine art world's dependence on corporate support, but also asks whether sponsorship is evidence of good corporate citizenship, or merely a refined form of product placement. A release about the show takes a line similar to Naomi Klein's, saying that the show and its forthcoming catalog examine how "companies that want to a appear 'down' with a certain demographic have attempted to co-opt an honest, organic, and real culture with a commercial one."
But the real message is actually a little more subtle than that. "Sponsorship" was organized by Ryan McGinness, a New York artist who also runs a commercial design studio called Ego. BlkMrkt, in addition to having a gallery space, is also the design studio of Shepard Fairey, who is probably best known for the famous "Obey Giant" sticker-and-stencil phenomenon familiar to urbanites all over the country, if not the world. Neither McGinness nor Fairey, then, is interested in blanket condemnation of commerce; instead they seem interested in provoking their audience to see that the lines between art and capital are blurry everywhere you look.
Some of the better-known participants are actually clients of either BlkMrkt or Ego. One major participant who bought in solely on the basis of a cold call was Scion, the new Gen Y-targeted car from Toyota. "Scion is branding by as many noncorporate methods as possible," explains Jeri Yoshizu, a Scion promotions manager. Major concert tours and sporting events are out for now, in favor of "communities and businesses and causes that are relevant to the core Scion segment. " So, depending on how you look at that statement, Scion was pumping its brand among the below-the-radar and ahead-of-the-curve market leaders—or trying to a appear "down" with a certain demographic. Or—and of course this is the correct answer—both.
Yoshizu's only complaint was that the company's logo in the show identified the car as the "Toyota Scion," rather than simply "Scion." "Other than that," she adds, "I thought it was super cool. I did feel that we were being mocked, but what the hell."