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Museums and brands: Is it a marriage made in heaven?

Museums with a strong reputation are stepping up their partnerships with brands

Published: Sep 21, 2023 11:39:43 AM IST
Updated: Sep 21, 2023 05:13:09 PM IST

Museums and brands: Is it a marriage made in heaven?Lancôme recently unveiled a skincare and makeup collection created in collaboration with the Louvre. Image: Courtesy of Lancôme x Louvre

Affected by falling public subsidies, the museum sector is in need of new sources of income. That's why museums with a strong reputation are stepping up their partnerships with brands. While these co-branding partnerships are in the interests of both parties, they are sometimes the subject of criticism.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870 to bring art and art education to the American people. More than 150 years after its creation, the American institution is pursuing the same goal by bringing itself directly into everyone's homes... provided that they have a Samsung TV. And not just any Samsung TV, it needs to be The Frame, an atypically designed TV taking the form of a framed artwork.

The Met has teamed up with the South Korean tech giant to integrate some 30 of its masterpieces into the Samsung Art Store, the image library reserved for owners of The Frame television sets. These include Edgar Degas's "The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage," Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers," Paul Cézanne's "Still Life with Apples and Pot of Primroses" and Georges Seurat's "Circus Sideshow." Treasures of Egyptian, Islamic and Japanese art also feature in the Met's selection for The Frame televisions.

Josh Romm, head of global licensing and partnerships at The Met, sees this alliance with the electronics group as a vehicle for cultural democratization. "Since its founding in 1870, The Met has been dedicated to bringing art and culture to the daily lives of visitors and art enthusiasts around the world. Our collaboration with Samsung activates this mission in a new and modern way, allowing consumers to enjoy iconic works from The Met’s collection at home. As users explore the selection and choose works to display, this program will create a new dialogue about art, creativity and technology," he said in a statement.

Before the Met, Samsung forged a similar partnership with the Louvre. In recent years, the world's most-visited museum has entered into numerous co-branding agreements to extend its reach and diversify its sources of revenue. The most recent is a skincare and makeup collection created in collaboration with luxury cosmetics brand Lancôme. This range of products is directly inspired by nine masterpieces of sculpture on display at the Louvre, including "The Venus de Milo" and "The Winged Victory of Samothrace," as well as by the lights and colors of the Parisian museum.

Also read: Museums are teaming up with musical artists to attract younger visitors

From Uniqlo to Ladurée

For the Louvre, these commercial partnerships don't just consist of adding its logo here and there, but also of showcasing its world. The museum carefully selects the brands it partners with in order to reach new audiences, without harming its brand image. Over the years, for example, it has made its way into high-end wardrobes with Off-White, Uniqlo and Louis Vuitton, onto wrists with Swatch, and into interiors with Maison Sarah Lavoine and Bernardaud. The institution has even tantalized taste buds through partnerships with macaron-maker Ladurée and tea specialists Le Palais des Thés.

The Louvre is following the example of its international counterparts, especially those in the English-speaking world, by showcasing works from its collections through both mainstream and more exclusive brands. Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum has done the same, teaming up with Vans, while Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) worked with Levi's and New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum partnered with COS. But perhaps the most prolific partnership has been between New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo, since 2013. This has given rise to a range of MoMA-inspired clothing and accessories, as well as digital content, special events and even a free admission policy benefitting all New Yorkers on the first Friday of every month.

Because "artketing"—art at the service of a brand—is ultimately only a short step away from sponsorship. Uniqlo has understood this: the ready-to-wear brand has signed sponsorship contracts with New York's MoMA, London's Tate Britain, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art and Paris's Louvre. It's a way for brands to gain visibility and, above all, prestige. Museums also benefit financially, although brands are very discreet about the amounts invested in these partnerships. The development and marketing of the Louvre brand generated nearly €4.5 million in 2020, according to the French art magazine Le Quotidien de l'Art. This is a considerable sum, given that the Louvre recorded a loss of €69.5 million that year.

All of which is enough to inspire other art establishments to follow the example of the Louvre, the Met or MoMA by diversifying their revenues through co-branding agreements. However, collaborating with brands is not without its risk. In 2007, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was strongly criticized for hosting a pop-up Louis Vuitton boutique as part of the "© Murakami" retrospective. At the time, art critic Dave Hickey declared that this commercial operation had turned MoCA into "a sort of upscale Macy's," according to the New York Times.

Another collaboration and another controversy. In 2019, the Louvre and the accommodation rental platform Airbnb organized a competition, offering the winner the chance to spend a night under the pyramid of the famous Parisian museum. The lucky winner was able to dine at the foot of the Venus de Milo, with the person of their choice, and attend an intimate concert by pop folk singer Sarah Jeanne Ziegler in the Napoleon III rooms. A tempting program, which nonetheless raised a few eyebrows. Ian Brossat, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of housing, expressed his dissatisfaction with a partnership he deemed "disastrous and shocking" in a letter addressed to the then Culture Minister, Franck Riester.

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