The relationship between corporate brands and artists is not what you would call natural. It’s true that many who work in advertising like to think of themselves as artists. But the reality is that they serve corporate interests, while artists are supposed to be free spirits divorced from such worldly concerns.
Artists do need money to produce and show their work, however, and this is where the two worlds have a reason to meet.
Last week, an installation by the French artist Sophie Calle provided a welcome change from the usual blaring commercial messages at Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing. Over seven days, ‘Voir La Mer’, the artist’s arresting documentation of people seeing the sea for the first time in their lives, was broadcast for an hour every night between midnight and 1 am.
The installation was made possible by BizReach, a 10-year-old Japanese HR services company, whose branding appeared above the imagery. Such a sponsorship is unusual in Japan, even though major corporations including Pola, Mori Building, Mitsubishi and Bridgestone have a history of supporting art by running their own museums.
Photographic equipment brands such as Canon and Fujifilm are known to sponsor emerging photographers. There is no obvious relationship however between BizReach, which uses technology to improve the recruitment process and has been described as the “Japanese LinkedIn”, and Calle or her artwork.
Teruko Fujii, an advisor at the Perrotin gallery, which represents Calle in Japan and globally, says the artist wanted to show her work at the iconic intersection, and needed to find a sponsor “who would understand and believe in the work and see it as an opportunity to take contemporary art outside galleries and museums”. She describes Japan as “a rudimentary contemporary art market” where work finds relatively few options for exposure.
Shin Takeuchi, BizReach’s chief product officer and chief technology officer, is an art enthusiast and collector, along with Takayuki Moriya, co-founder and chief executive of Nion, a production company which supported the project. Takeuchi says BizReach’s main interest was in appealing to prospective employees and calls the sponsorship an “investment in art”. He says BizReach is looking to hire people with a combination of high level technological, design and marketing skills. Such candidates are difficult to find, but are increasingly interested in art and collecting, he says, hence the decision to target them via an installation.
It’s also a way of raising awareness of BizReach in a more organic and engaging way than through advertising. “It’s not a matter of how many people you reach, but about the depth of communication,” Takeuchi explains. “So people who only know a bit about BizReach, now they can think it’s this kind of company. That kind of change can only be achieved with art, I am convinced of that.”
Takeuchi did not disclose how much the sponsorship cost, but he said if the effort results in even a small number of appointments it would prove significantly cheaper than using traditional recruitment methods. He said it would also be less than a typical CSR campaign aimed at raising awareness, which he sees as delivering little value. The sponsorship carried no call to action. Instead Takeuchi says he hopes it will simply cast BizReach as a company that values art and as such, a positive place to work.
Moriya, who spends the bulk of his time on advertising-related work but is drawn to more artistic endeavours, said the aim was to inspire people to feel that “I like this company but don’t know why”, which is usually very difficult to achieve. He was initially doubtful that a sponsor would fund the project.
If a brand wants to reach art lovers, why not just sponsor a regular exhibition? The move was partly an effort to free art from the gallery space, and partly to surprise people or at least make them think about what they were seeing, Moriya says. He sees it as regrettable that art has come to be seen as “something on a pedestal”. He says Shibuya offered a chance to juxtapose the tranquil work against a backdrop of frenetic activity while exposing it to people who wouldn’t be inclined to visit a gallery. In that respect, the project served as a marketing exercise both for BizReach and for Calle herself.
“The role of business is to take fine art out of the box so that it becomes part of life, part of culture,” Takeuchi believes.
He envisages becoming involved in further initiatives. “Art projects aren’t something we can create, so I hope that more will emerge that we can support,” he says. He thinks more brands will come to see the benefits of aligning with individual pieces of art. “In 10 years’ time, we should be able to say it was a cheap investment,” he says.
However, others foresee challenges. Eric Matsunaga, a professional musician-turned-management-consultant, says it would be “wonderful” if art could be used to support a company’s activities in a sustained manner, but adds: “To be honest, I cannot feel love for art in most companies’ activities.”
He thinks for such efforts to become more widespread, and to be effective, Japan’s corporate world needs to become more open to truly creative people. “If they think seriously that management needs a sense of art, they should invite artists into management,” he observes.