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Brands and artists should build bridges to find common ground, says Ajaz Ahmed, chief executive of ideas and innovation agency AKQA

4 min read

The poetry of ancient Persia is full of bridges. In the works of Rumi and others, metaphors are the bridges of art, in the sense that they unite two seemingly irreconcilable things. They give people a route to make sense of an alien world or concept by relating it to something familiar. They illuminate by association.

Here is how this world connects, directly, to that other, apparently isolated one. Bridges also represent journeys between states of being, rather than just a means of getting from A to B. Hence, for example, the Persian belief that people in the West are perhaps too far over the prose side of the bridge, while the East is too drawn to poetry. If only we could meet in the middle, we might find a perfect balance of mind and body, calculation and creativity.

That idea of two cultures stuck at either ends of the same bridges could be applied to art and business today. They need each other despite their apparent differences; they are concerned with many of the same things, but that’s obscured by their mutual suspicion. Perhaps a bit more metaphor and magic would be a start in changing this state of affairs. If agencies, arts practitioners and brands had a big, captivating idea to come together around, instead of cultural differences to get hung up on, more really worthwhile partnerships would surely result.

Today’s most obvious examples of art and business overlap admirably, but they also thrive because of an uncomplicated fit between the audience for the brand and the artwork. Burberry and British music groups get mutual leverage through a shared sense of national style and sexy chic. Fashion labels, from Cos to Cartier, sponsor contemporary artists and art events because they all tap into a certain demographic’s sense of culture and credibility. Drinks brands do much the same. For the audience, it’s a circle that reaffirms your sense of taste and refinement. For the brand, it’s a bit of borrowed aura and credible press. For the artist, it’s a source of revenue for licensing their authentic personality and the right kind of exposure in a market where buzz is vital to value.

If brand and artist know what they stand for, they should be able to find some common ground 

Go beyond that kind of easy connection, which is really just an update of old-fashioned patronage, and it inevitably gets more complicated right away. As we know, business is about clarity and measurability, but art loves mystery and multiple interpretations. Artists cherish the right to free speech, but businesses seen to endorse an even mildly controversial message can be ruined by customer rage, especially in the age of Twitter.

So it would take an unusual amount of trust between a good artist and a good business, both fiercely protective and careful about their image, to embrace the many risks on both sides and allow something really impressive to happen. But we could all start by ditching some of our preconceptions, and being a bit more honest about how art and business are both about the discipline to execute impressive work, the need to engage people and the requirement to bring enough revenue to keep making things happen.

A few years ago, a major gallery director gave a short speech at a press launch of a new exhibition about cities. In it, he pleaded with the journalists there to put the name of the show’s sponsor, a major building company, in their reviews. Many grumbled: if the sponsor was so vital, why didn’t they embrace the fact and incorporate its name into the title of the show, like modern football stadiums, instead of palming off the task to a third party? 

More fruitful interchanges between the arts and businesses would be less likely to start with strategies and procedures than with conversations. Not everybody’s people talking to everybody’s people, but artists and their agents talking directly to brands and their agencies about what they care about, what makes them cringe, what excites them, how they could use new technologies and respective resources to engage with audiences in new ways (and perhaps better involve them in the creative process). 

If brand and artist know what they stand for, they should be able to find some common ground. Having the humility to know what you’re not cut out for and the strength to focus on what you do well; to adapt and incorporate outside expertise to enable you to make your dreams reality: these are the ways human achievement has always come about. Art and entrepreneurialism are two expressions of one shared desire: to leave the world a little different than you found it.

Read Ajaz’s earlier piece in Artworks here.