Is Corporate Patronage the Art World's Saving Grace? Red Bull Arts's Max Wolf on Branded Alternatives to the Gallery Model

Is Corporate Patronage the Art World's Saving Grace? Red Bull Arts's Max Wolf on Branded Alternatives to the Gallery Model
Max Wolf

Energy drinks are a tough sell. They generally don’t taste very good, they don’t pair well with food, and, well... there's always coffee. So how is it that everyone knows that Red Bull “gives you wings”? Because Red Bull—a private company worth $7.9 billion as of May—is a content-marketing virtuoso. And while their target audience may have began with extreme sports enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies, they’ve more recently settled into fine art, having opened their first exhibition space in 2014 in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

So, what does a corporate sponsored art program look like? Considering that artists have traditionally taken an antagonistic stance towards big business, you might be surprised to learn that in the case of Red Bull Arts New York (formerly known as Red Bull Studios ), the answer to this question is: pretty good! In March of 2014, they hit the ground running with their inaugural exhibition by DIS —the maverick collective behind DIS Magazine and the curators of the most recent Berlin Biennial —who created a retail store stocked with subversive “products” designed by young fellow Post-Internet -esque artists like Lizzie Fitch , Ryan Trecartin , Amalia Ulman , Daniel Keller , Bjarne Melgaard , Jon Rafman , Dora Budor , Jogging , Timur Si-Qin … and the list goes on.

Since then, Red Bull Arts has continued to work with artists like Ryder Ripps and Peter Coffin , and most recently teamed up with Mel Chin to reproduce his historic collaboration with the GALA Committee , a conceptual artwork disseminated on the primetime television show Melrose Place from 1995-97.

During a lull in the art market, when mid-tier galleries are struggling to keep their doors open and many emerging and mid-career artists are beginning to lose faith in their dealers, could corporate patronage be the art world’s saving grace? Or can the capitalistic, heavy-handed influence of big business on the art world only lead to corruption and exploitation? Here, Artspace ’s Loney Abrams speaks with Red Bull Arts's program manager, Max Wolf, about Red Bull’s relationship with the art world and how the art world can stand to benefit from it.

How did you become involved with Red Bull?

I’ve been working in contemporary art for 10 years prior to this, and in the arts for my entire life. I grew up in an auction house in Cleveland, so I was in the back of trucks schlepping fine art and antiques and surrounded by the cauldron of the art market. After trying out a few different things after college, I started independently curating shows, including one in a small space in the Fuller Building on 57th Street with my friend. We were called Misc, as in miscellaneous. Then I ended up working at Artnet as the senior contemporary specialist for about six or seven years. I worked with Walter Robinson and Gracie Mansion to organize sales, and I helped build a private sales platform for them, which is basically just art advising. Meanwhile I continued independently curating.

Then I left Artnet and was slowly doing advising for a while, and someone hit me up about this job at Red Bull. I was wildly reticent to marry high art and an energy drink. I was just like, “There’s no way that’s going to work—and no one’s going to talk to me.” I thought it was super fraught. That being said, I didn’t know a lot about Red Bull. All I knew of was their involvement in extreme sports and some music, which I was into. So, I went into it with open ears, and it was a really long interview process. I ended up getting the job.

But I didn’t really realize, initially, the potential of the model and the ethos of the company. I quickly learned that this company is fully committed to supporting artists in a way that is unhindered by the objectives of the beverage company. It’s like two totally different things. I thought it would be a real negotiation—I thought I’d have to say, “Listen, this is a different audience than with sports. They’ll find out who’s behind it, and it won’t be good.” But I didn’t have to tell them that. There was never an agenda to have Red Bull Presents: Cool Art Show!

Instead, it was like, “How about we do a really smart show, and we don’t brand the space aside from a couple of coolers?” Red Bull had respect for the fact that this project is a bit discerning and subtle, and it would probably go a lot farther in terms of building equity for the program if we could be somewhat independent. And that wasn’t a fight. Red Bull got it and was super sophisticated about it. And that made this really exciting.

Having been embroiled in the market my whole life, I found this was the purest—to my surprise—way to work with art. Even when I was curating my own shows independently, I’d be nailing the pieces in and doing the press releases and then trying to convince my friends to buy these works and it just was fraught. The transactional element made it difficult. So it dawned on me in the beginning that this could be something really special.

I know there’s a stigma, but I think if we can consistently do challenging, balanced, critical programming, in time we can quell or erode the stigma that I know exists. And I think ten years ago this wouldn’t have worked because the notion of selling out would have been so prominent. But, I felt that the purity of encouraging an artist to push and take chances on a presentation, without necessarily trying to find a way to bring it to market, felt really good. And it was not hard selling that.

So, what’s in it for Red Bull?

It’s super simple. I mean, let’s be real—this is all marketing, right? Everything’s marketing.

But why does Red Bull want to market to the art world, specifically?

Why not? I think they’ve really done a good job, over two decades, of building this very sophisticated, academic incubator residency that is the Red Bull Music Academy. There are also other ventures throughout the company, many cogs in the Red Bull wheel, that deal with art in various fashions. In New York, there was an opportunity to enter a space that didn’t really want to fuck with them, and to do it right.

Amy Taylor, who is really the leader of this whole business, has a mantra or ethos, which is to provide a platform and get out of the way. The currency that Red Bull is dealing in is credibility, and that’s far less of a negotiation than driving up auction prices or flirting with collectors. And I think if that’s the currency we deal with, that’s okay. Philosophically it’s a tradeoff.

Maybe I’m wrong on this, but I feel like the average art-world New Yorker is more likely to spend $6.50 on a Bulletproof iced coffee on tap than $1.50 on a Red Bull. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts, is the ultimate goal to sell Red Bull to people who spend $6.50 on caffeine? And does Red Bull need to see that sales are increasing among the art world demographic to justify continuing this art programing or justify expanding it to new locations?

I think in the end, all marketing—no matter what vertical it is in the company—hopefully will drive back to the product. Our metrics of success here in the art program are not tied to that at all, unlike other portions, but I think it’s really increasing the equity of the brand and hence the brand association. You know, it’s funny: before I worked for Red Bull I never drank an energy drink. And one time I was driving home to Cleveland and I thought, “I’m getting tied, I have to get one of these energy drinks,” and I remember opening the fridge thinking, “Red Bull? Oh yeah, I went to this really dope Cam’ron concert they threw. I’ll get that.”

I realized, okay, maybe that’s how that works. It’s really straightforward. There are so many layers between us and the product that there’s a genuine commitment to increase the criticality of our programing outside of measuring it with can sales. And that’s a huge privilege for us.

"DISown—Not For Everyone" "DISown—Not For Everyone"

Corporate sponsorship is everywhere. We probably see it among athletes the most, with NASCAR being the most obvious, visible example. Like you said, the music industry is becoming more open to this kind of corporate involvement, but it seems to me that the art world could be one of the last industries to feel comfortable with it. I think this is what you were talking about when you mentioned the “stigma” earlier. Why do you think it’s so hard for this idea of corporate sponsorship to take hold in the art world?

Well I think there are a couple factors here. There are older models, like Phillip Morris, who did really amazing patronage in that regard. But when you look at Red Bull’s product, and I think what creates a bit of a fissure is the distance between Red Bull and the product of art, or luxury goods. When you look at Fondazione Prada or you look at Louis Vuitton, there isn’t as much of a distance between their base products and art. So I think we’re asking a little bit more of the audience; we’re asking them to take a leap away from what they might assume the brand is. So, yeah, that’s a challenge. That’s a big challenge.

And also, there’s been a couple of ways that sponsorship works in the art world, whether it’s traditional art prizes, or just blatantly writing a check to a museum, or product integration. We didn’t want to do any of those. We wanted to create this new form to redefine the world of corporate patronage, and that entails having our space, which allows us to not have to brand things. There’s a certain freedom with Red Bull in that there’s no need to remind people who’s behind it or what they’re doing. It’s a slower burn, but it will resonate. It’s asking a lot more of the patron—in this case, Red Bull—to commit to a big space in the middle of the city, but I think there’s a certain freedom by having a space and you don’t have to be so blasé about your involvement.

In terms of reactions from artists, I surprisingly haven’t had to a talk people off the ledge very much. For example, Peter Coffin , who did the second show, took a big risk and took a chance with us. And I knew he did. That was the first solo show here in a space where a lot of his friends were like, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it!” and I’ll never forget that he did, because it really helped propel the vision of the program, and that was important. And I respected him because I knew, even right before the opening, that he was having a bit of double jeopardy there.

It’s been increasingly easier to have these conversations. I think the audience's understanding of brands has also evolved in the sense that not all corporations are these evil Exxon monsters. There are brands who sell an energy drink who spend the majority of their revenue on marketing and supporting people, and they take care of vast charitable resources, and they’re a big company that’s still privately owned—hard to poke holes into. I’m sure we could, but I don’t think it’s as black and white as: corporations bad, mom-and-pop good.

But even for me in the beginning, when I was interviewing, I asked some friends for advice and I’ll never forget some of them being like, “You can’t do that, it’s suicide.” And then some other people being like, “No, this is a really amazing opportunity.” What really pulled me over the edge was meeting Bill Connors and Amy Taylor, the heads of our whole operation, and they have this amazing positivity and openness to experiment and empower. They were really willing to give me the reigns. In the first year, DIS obviously helped ease the stigma, brilliantly. The idea of us being a corporate space was paramount to the concept.

I feel Red Bull got involved with art at a good time. I think at least among younger artists, there’s been a new, more accepting attitude towards brands in general. We’ve seen this in fashion: Vetements sells a $300 T-shirt with the DHL logo on it, the health goth trend fetishizes Nike and Adidas, and even with the normcore phenomenon you see cool kids wearing shirts with “GAP” across their chests. It used to be that the default artist attitude was vehement disgust towards “the man,” towards big business. But that attitude has become cliché and now, in a way, it feels more radical and avant-garde to be transparent about the fact that we live in a society that’s run by these corporations, and that it’s unavoidable. Like, why pretend that we are not participating in this kind of power structure?

And even if the “cool kids” started embracing brands like Nike in an ironic way, the visual presence of logos and corporate branding among this generation has had a visual impact that I think is starting to have an ideological impact as well. The mood has shifted and now we can actually conceive of this idea that a partnership between Red Bull and art might not only be mutually beneficial, it can be kind of cool. And on top of that, there has always been concerns about the gallery model, and artists are always searching for alternatives that give them more freedom.

Statistically, there are increasingly fewer opportunities for artists in a gallery model. Even with an MFA, it’s increasingly harder to get your first show and then to maintain a consistent collector base. It’s tough . I really hope a place like this becomes a trend with corporations and inspires corporate responsibility and a new form of patronage. Maybe corporations like this are some of the few who can support big and bold ideas that don’t need to sell. I mean, there are amazing galleries that fight to support artists and to sell shows so they can put the next show on, and usually those galleries’ artists get plucked away and they continue to do the real labor unrewarded. Maybe, hopefully some day there will be a way to support really bold, young galleries as well.

If you’re an artist working with a gallery, your value is totally embedded in the objects that you make. You made a piece, and now it’s a product, and your success rides on whether or not there’s a demand for that product. I mean, that’s a very reductionist, economically oriented, kind of depressing view, of course, but if we’re talking about how artists support themselves, that’s at the crux. But with the model of corporate patronage, artists are given budgets to produce projects, and they don’t have to worry about making salable works. They’re getting money whether or not they can sell, which means they can be a lot more experimental. What they make is no longer a “product” in the sense that it is in a commercial gallery.

Exactly. This is about elevating ideas. And it’s not about creating duffel-bag-sized works that you can buy at an art fair and put away. It is the exact opposite of that. We don’t message this, but it’s a really important tenet of our philosophy, and is what I call the reverse-provenance model. Usually in the trajectory or the lineage of an art object, it often ends up on the wall of a corporation. What if a corporation gave birth to these works, produced and fabricated these works at the artist’s behest, and it went out into the market with no vested interest from the corporation?

For every show, we produce and fabricate the works, which are usually new works and site-specific—and then the artist leaves with the work. And, they retain 100-percent of the rights to the work. And for us this is fundamental to our program: not only do we fly in the face of the market, we allow artists to actually leave with something they can sell. Hayden Dunham sold half of her Red Bull show at Andrea Rosen’s booth two months after our show. She sold works in Miami that we helped produce. I have this proud-dad feeling about that, and Red Bull doesn’t see any of that profit. And they don’t want to—they never wanted to. That’s amazing. So it’s like a new-fangled art prize.

"Living: En Exhibition by Peter Coffin" "Living: En Exhibition by Peter Coffin"

Would you and Red Bull Arts ever be interested in sponsoring artists the way that galleries represent artists? So that rather than doing these one-off shows, you would have a continued relationship with the artist, and even when they’re not doing a project here , you’re somehow supporting their studio practice. I don’t know what that means in terms of the give and take—whether that means every show they do elsewhere is courtesy of Red Bull Arts, or if it means they’re wearing Red Bull hats, or whatever it is.

Tattoos. They have to get tattoos.

Mandatory Red Bull face tats! Can this go in that direction?

Every artist who shows with us indirectly and unofficially becomes part of a stable of artists that we love. We’re not at a place with our budget where we can fully commit to what we call “outside four walls support.” But, we do on small levels. In regards to DIS's work at the New Museum triennial, we helped support the programming around the piece they created with a series of talks, lectures, and performances, which happened throughout the run of the show. We also threw a party in Venice during the biennale in 2015 with DIS & KW to celebrate and announce their curatorial nod for the Berlin Biennale.

We try to find ways to continue to support. Ideally, down the road, our programming will act as an overarching umbrella—as a support model that exists outside of an IRL space. So in Berlin we would help, who knows, bring Peter Coffin’s Music for Plants there, or help these things travel. So that is definitely a goal, but it’s sort of embryonic at this stage.

I’m fascinated by this hypothetical that involves artists gaining sponsorship like extreme sport athletes world. I know that Red Bull doesn’t do this so we’re just speculating here, but I’m wondering how this would work. The upside to that is—and we’ve been talking about this—that the artist may have more freedom to experiment and won’t need to rely on sales for income. But what are the pitfalls? How artists brand themselves might become a lot more important than what artists make, since a corporation would be most attracted to artists who are “influencers.”

We’re already seeing this happen with social media anyway, where sexy artists who take lots of selfies and show themselves partying with the “right” people in the “right” places seem to also be the artists who are being offered shows. You said you hope more corporations follow Red Bull’s footsteps and support artists through patronage. But what are the dangers? Might that encourage and reward celebrity-type artists?

I think that’s a totally dangerous dynamic. To support an artist because they have reach is mired and problematic. I mean, it happens, and I think it happens mostly as one-off corporate Instagram takeovers by some cool artist, and the company feels like they get some kind of value out of that which I don’t think exists anymore because the audience doesn’t care. Your seltzer doesn’t look any more desirable to somebody because they saw an Instagram takeover. But if you really support and commit to helping realize or bring to fruition a bold idea, I think there’s something interesting in that.

I can only speak about our program, but for me it’s important to find ways to work with artists that have gravitas or are established in some way, and to balance that yearly programming with supporting emerging artists. And that means that our shows are a bit challenging; some are encrypted, some are pretty oblique, and not as accessible. And that’s fine. The challenge is: how do we find that balance between doing historical surveys, giving emerging artists new opportunities, and showing more established artists as well?

How have these past couple years of programming gone for you? Did you set out to have an equal balance between emerging artists, established artists, and historical surveys from the start?

I mean, the right answer is, yes, the program is absolutely planned out for two years, and very balanced. But no, we are a super small team so there are a lot of hats being worn by very few people. I have a wish list of artists I’d love to show, and I wish I could spend more time traveling and meeting most of these people, but I think a lot of things come out of relationships and people we know, and sometimes it’s serendipitous—like Mel Chin , for example.

I always loved his work; I’m a huge fan. I met him in the elevator of the Whitney a couple of years ago with my mom, and we struck up a conversation. We were getting on the elevator and he’s like, “What a nice young man to bring his mother to the opening at the Whitney.” And in my head I’m like, “Is this fucking Mel Chin? What’s going on?” but I say, “Thank you, sir,” and by the time we got to the bottom of the elevator he had an appointment to come here the next morning. We knew we wanted to do GALA Committee and it kind of evolved from there.

There’s a conscientious balance of age and accessibility with our programing. We really want to expand the audience here, and of contemporary art, but we have to do so by being very challenging and critical. We’re increasingly getting better proposals, too, which didn’t happen for a while, which helps.

You accept proposals for exhibitions?

Yeah. And I think institutional dialog is happening a lot more lately, too, which I wouldn’t have thought would have happened this quickly. But let’s be real, this model is a huge complement to a primary gallery. A primary gallery can take a younger artist, give them a show here with a pretty sizable budget, produce really new work, and then obviously take the work elsewhere. That’s a service we’re happy to provide, and we're happy to stay untangled by the market. Some people have picked up on that.

"TOTAL PROOF: The GALA Committee 1995-1997" "TOTAL PROOF: The GALA Committee 1995-1997"

Does Red Bull have an art collection?

In Austria there’s a big art collection that the owner of Red Bull has. He has an airplane hanger full of stuff. I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s sprawling. But in terms of our program, we’ve tried to commission one work from each show for Red Bull’s corporate collection here. For us, we have no intent in ever selling it or accumulating corporate assets, we just put it in the office and celebrate it. And for us, they’re like artifacts of these amazing relationships we’ve built.

It’s humble, but we’re accumulating some really interesting works. Justin [Lowe] and Jonah [Freeman] gave us some great works, Hayden [Dunham] is working on a new piece, George Henry Longly is doing something. Some things come from the show and sometimes the artist wants to make something else. And it’s never a negotiation. There’s a lot of good will on our part so they’re more than happy to do that.

How do you see Red Bull Arts New York fitting in among the other exhibition spaces? You don’t participate in the market; you don’t do art fairs. But you’re not a museum either.

I don’t know that I can see us in art fairs. But our gift shop is a twist on a traditional museum gift shop, though it’s really like a programming platform—everything in our shop is commissioned exclusively from artists we work with or want to work with. It has artist editions, objects, books, apparel, silly products, shit like that. And something that we’ve not done a good job of messaging is that Red Bull sees none of those proceeds. We often split the proceeds with the artist or arrange a fee, but the rest of those proceeds go directly back into programming and creating new objects with artists.

So, outside of this program—which is only two or three shows a year, which is a bit lumbering—it’s a way to work with a lot of younger artists, make things, hopefully provide some bit of revenue for them. I would love to see our artist edition model grow—and those could go to fairs, potentially.

We know we are not an institution. But we really sort of subscribe to an institutional model, sans board. But I’ll tell you some of the other ways it is different. It’s funny talking to someone like Babak Radboy, who is out in the galleries right now working on this next show with Tim Smith, who’s Bjarne Melgaard ’s studio manager. There’s sort of a funny moment when we agree to do a show and I bring all the artists in, and they meet this huge Red Bull team. There are guys who make content, there’s PR, there are production groups. I mean, it’s a big unit—and it’s something that I really had to adjust to. For years I didn’t understand it—I didn’t get the vernacular. But it is an asset that we have—essentially, a media house that a lot of institutions don’t have.

I mean, we don’t have half the staff that any gallery has. We have three people: me, my associate curator I got from Tanya Leighton, and one production manager. And then we contract everyone else on a programming budget. There’s a lot being done by very few people. But we have these assets, these resources upstairs that are really like a machine. So it was funny talking to Tim about how they sat at this huge conference table with 30 or 40 Red Bull people listening to Bjarne Melgaard talk about doing a sex party. And Tim said to me, “With every museum I’ve dealt with, I’ve never dealt with such thorough project management.” To an artist that can get past the bewilderment of that whole operation, that is a huge benefit, because it’s just muscle.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you have coming up?

We’re doing a show with Bjarne Melgaard, and it’s a really interesting show. I think the real tenet of our program is to try to support and erect shows that maybe a gallery, not couldn’t afford to do, but maybe wouldn’t be willing to do, or an institution might shy away from. It could include the double jeopardy of an artist commercializing his art practice, and something that really interests me are these new forms or responses to the art market, which, without saying too much, I know Bjarne is embroiled in and is, well, pissed. He doesn’t want to be painting anymore and he’s annoyed with that model.

I love that we can be an outlet for that. It’s including a really amazing cast of artists like Babak Radboy and Shawn Maximo and a number of people who are really gearing up to make this exciting. So that’ll open during fashion week, and it’s a bit of a critique on and exploitation of fashion. And then we will probably do something around the Red Bull Music Academy Festival in May. Last year we did this project with the group NON where they turned our whole gift shop into a duty free shop and made all these conceptual products. We came up with this idea to write a manifesto for a borderless New World Order. So I’m like, why don’t we just be perpetually in customs and make all these really cool products around this duty free idea?

And so we’ll probably do something like that again. I can’t really tell you too much about what the programming is for the festival, but it’s, again, really smart and in there. This summer we’re looking to do a small summer program that might be linking with some other institutions or alternative spaces around the city. And then in the fall we’re working with an emerging artist for her biggest presentation to date. But, like I was saying before, nothing is in stone—it’s just like scramble mode all the time. But I’m really excited about the balance already of this year’s calendar, because I think there’s a little something for everybody, and it’s a challenge to support emerging and established and historical shows.


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