Young at art

Luxury goods companies have long been sponsors within the art world, but a new initiative by Louis Vuitton gives underprivileged children a real chance to be part of it. Lucia van der Post reports.

May 01 2010
Lucia van der Post

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the UK’s Tate art gallery group, is more than usually excited about the art world at the moment. “I have a sense that something new is in the air, that the times are rather like the beginning of the 20th century when Cubism revolutionised European art and sculpture and when Picasso, Matisse and Braque were doing extraordinary things in art. There’s an excitement about cross-fertilisation, about working with the new media, possibly in dance and music. I feel that there will be much more interesting cross-disciplinary work being done throughout the arts.”

He is not alone. Around the world there is a keen air of something new happening in cultural circles. In New York, in Paris and in London, attendances at almost all cultural venues are up. It’s almost as if the difficult economic times have brought about a renewed sense of the role that culture can play in all our lives. At Tate Britain, for instance, Sir Nicholas tells me the monthly late-evening openings usually attract about 3,000 people, but “when we had Chris Ofili we got over 10,000”.

London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, too, in a keynote speech last September, emphasised that arts and culture are life-enhancing and valuable in themselves. They lie at the heart of every successful city and are part of London’s DNA: “It is why people want to live and work here, and seven out of 10 tourists say it is a reason for their visit.” He pointed out that tourism, in which culture plays such a huge role, is worth £16bn to London’s economy, while “the subsidised arts sector helps stimulate the commercial creative industries, which bring 500,000 jobs to London and add an estimated £20bn in value.”

Johnson gave his speech when the recession was hitting arts funding badly, pointing out the paradox that just as culture was needed and appreciated more than ever, funding was falling. Arts & Business, an organisation part-funded by the Arts Council that acts as a matchmaker for businesses and the arts world, noted that private-sector business investment fell by six per cent in 2008/09, while individual giving and funding from trusts and foundations both fell by seven per cent. And there’s been further bad news: Chancellor Alistair Darling slashed £60m (about four per cent) from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in his March 2010 Budget. What this means is that new initiatives, new thinking and, above all, funding are badly needed.

Enter Louis Vuitton, mostly noted for its swanky bags and other sought-after accessories, but also for a long tradition of affiliating itself with the arts. In the past it has done this mostly through sponsoring exhibitions and artists and providing art-linked experiences (talks, special access to exhibitions) for its most privileged customers. When Sue Whiteley, MD of Louis Vuitton UK & Scandinavia, thought about how to celebrate the opening of its new London flagship store – the New Bond Street Maison – this year she decided that, while a party was fine and dandy, the company needed to do something more meaningful as well. So it has chosen to mark the occasion by launching The Louis Vuitton Young Arts Project.

This is not an arts project aimed at buying pictures to display to the great and good (though Vuitton does that, too), nor a project to support one of the art world’s stars (which it also does), but a programme aimed mostly at the dispossessed, the underprivileged, the young; the sort of people least likely to set foot in a Louis Vuitton store or be after one of the brand’s Tambour watches embellished with 800 diamonds.

It says something about the times we’re in and the sea change that has come over the world of luxury that Whiteley has had a complete rethink about what is an appropriate way to celebrate in 2010. “When we started to think about how to launch New Bond Street Maison, the recession was obviously on our minds and it seemed we needed to be much more modest, more caring, more collaborative in our approach. We already do a great deal of sponsorship – we supported the big Ofili exhibition at Tate, Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy, and many others – so were looking to do something different. We wanted to give something back to London, to be part of its cultural world. Above all, we wanted to move from passive sponsorship to active engagement.”

She started to look around, to talk to art institutions. One of the first projects she came across was through Ofili, who works on an educational initiative with Charlie Dark, a charismatic writer, producer and DJ described by the BBC as “a dynamic part of the UK’s performance and poetry scene”. Ofili took Whiteley to see the work they were doing with underprivileged children in some of the worst areas of London. Dark acts as the poet coach for teenage poetry slams (a dynamic performance of poetry that combines writing, drama and public speaking) as well as teaching poetry and creative writing around the world. Many of the children he works with come from broken homes, others have parents who are drug addicts or alcoholics; these workshops allow them to explore these issues in a creative way.

“What moved me,” says Whiteley, “was the journey these children were going on and the transformative effect these workshops had. It was an experience I could never forget, it was so emotional.” That was the moment she decided to look at art and education: “It brought home to me the power of culture to transform lives.”

That was just the beginning. She became convinced that it was among this group of people, aged between 13 and 20, that Vuitton could make the most difference. These are the ages at which exposure to the transforming power of culture has the greatest impact. She set about persuading five of London’s leading art institutions – the Hayward Gallery, the Whitechapel Gallery, Tate Britain, the Royal Academy of Arts and the South London Gallery – to become partners and collaborators in what she wanted to be a major arts and education programme. Bizarrely, though all of them had schemes to try and engage with young people in their locales, they’d never collaborated in this way before. It would start off as a three-year programme. Vuitton would provide a sum just north of £1m to fund it and, though it would be the guiding, uniting spirit, the galleries would be the focus and provide the expertise. Its aims are expressed quite simply in a Louis Vuitton statement: “to nurture an exploration, enjoyment and passion for the arts among young people which they can take into adult life and perhaps follow as a career pathway”.

Putting this into practice is infinitely more complex but Whiteley’s meeting with Margot Heller, director of the South London Gallery, proved pivotal. The gallery is small and on the unfashionable Peckham Road in Camberwell, yet its influence has been out of all proportion to its size. It was the first public space to give Tracey Emin a solo exhibition and its last show, Michael Landy’s Art Bin, was an international sensation. But what moved Whiteley most was its work with the community. Situated in one of London’s most deprived districts and backing onto a large housing estate, the gallery under Heller has developed an extraordinary relationship with the residents.

There are practical workshops for people on the estate, where they come not just to look at art but to engage, think, reflect. The gallery takes art into local schools and groups to art fairs. It organises debates about hot artistic topics, such as what should be on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. “If you hand-hold them a bit, hire a coach and make an event of it, then people come,” says Heller. “A small group of committed new arts fans, The Art Assassins [from SLG’s young people’s forum], now organise their own events and art projects.”

This gave Whiteley the anchor she needed: “We were so inspired by Margot’s work in the community that we asked her to manage the project, with us leading it.”

The key prongs of the programme are to encourage and fund the activities that many of the five galleries already have going with young people. Youth panels at each institution will visit Louis Vuitton’s HQ to share experiences of the programme and of guest mentors. They’ll be taken to exhibitions, talks and workshops. There will be a website to communicate with and support each other. Finally, each year there will be a five-day-long Louis Vuitton Summer Academy for 30 young people, six from each institution.

Among the many organised visits, the lucky 30 will be taken to artists’ and film studios and to auction houses to learn what’s involved in putting a collection together. Managing the disappointment of those not getting on the course is going to be key. The full programme will be announced with some fanfare on May 12, while the Louis Vuitton New Bond Street Maison, the original catalyst, opens on May 28.

All the partner institutions seem excited, and not just because they will get extra funding. “The chance to share visits and news with other institutions, the cross-fertilisation, will be very rewarding,” says Heller. Many of the young people, even though involved in their local gallery’s activities, have never visited the others. More specifically, most of the schemes are run on a shoestring in a hand-to-mouth way. Every time they think of an initiative they have to raise money for coach hire, staff and materials. “Now,” as Heller puts it, “we are promised continuity of funding for three years. We can recruit staff to organise and mentor. We can plan ahead, knowing that we have funding to make our projects happen.”

Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, says: “Louis Vuitton has a history of combining fashion with art. I worked with them when I was at the National Gallery, when they did high-profile events, holding events with Tim Marlowe from White Cube for their important customers, but this is different. This is putting considerable sums of money into encouraging local communities to have access to the arts. Though the numbers are small, through them the message can be spread more widely.”

Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, where last year 16,000 children and young people took part in projects, emphasises that while the funding is hugely important (“It will enable us to give some very disadvantaged young people an almost bespoke college experience, a masterclass in the arts, if you like, for it will pay for mentors, training, all sorts of things we couldn’t do otherwise”), Vuitton has also been “the catalyst that has made something very interesting happen”. And everybody emphasises that the glamour of the Louis Vuitton name, its association with fashion, is a big draw and should bring into the programmes a lot of young people who otherwise might never have heard about them. As Munira Mirza, the Mayor’s adviser for arts and culture, puts it: “We believe the fact that the brand is sexy in itself will make it attractive to the young and we hope it might inspire others to do something similar.”

Certainly, the stories of lives that have already been transformed by art are touching and are part of what moved Whiteley to direct her efforts to young people. Kelly, for instance, says that through the Southbank’s SE1 United group, young people who originally came along simply because they needed somewhere to do their homework have now become passionate about the arts. Some have found jobs in the arts, three are studying film-making. A boy she took to a concert who had never seen a cello in his life was so transfixed that he is now a serious student of the instrument. “The arts,” she says, “can bring about these magical moments, as if one’s opened a wonderful door.”

Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts & Business, thinks this is a very brave move, which is appreciably different. Almost every luxury goods company and big business allies itself in some way with the arts and philanthropy but they usually sponsor specific artists, institutions or exhibitions and frequently offer prizes, but, “Most luxury goods companies don’t really want to be associated with the underprivileged, the sort of kids for whom a rip-off copy would be the nearest they’d get to a Louis Vuitton product.”

Prada, Max Mara, Cartier and the PPR group have their big foundations and museums. Montblanc sponsors youth orchestras and young musicians. A Credit Suisse initiative run with London’s National Gallery is possibly the nearest in kind to the work that Louis Vuitton proposes to do, holding a series of workshops with primary schoolchildren from Brent, Greenwich, Southwark and Enfield.

Louis Vuitton may only have committed to a three-year programme but there is a sense that this is just the beginning of an adventure, and nobody quite knows where it’s heading. As Heller says, “The ripples could spread very far.” And if this really makes a difference, who knows what might be possible? As Serota puts it, “It’s a brave and enterprising move... and if it takes off maybe we should look at more cross-disciplinary work, extending it to bring in perhaps the National Theatre, the LSO, the Royal Philharmonic...”

Certainly, in the words of Louis Vuitton itself, there has been “a seismic shift from extravagance, conspicuous consumption and materialism to a greater sense of social awareness and responsibility”. No company today can afford not to be seen to be involved in some kind of socially responsible enterprise beyond its commercial activities. So what, you may be wondering, is in it for Vuitton? Yves Carcelle, chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton, says it is just one part of the company’s global corporate responsibility programme. “We have some 16,000 people in our company and it helps every one feel they are involved in something worthwhile. And though, of course, it plays a part in helping our image in the wider world, it also helps us recruit good people. We see when young people hear about the projects how much it influences their view of the company.”

Certainly, it’s hard to see any obvious commercial connection. And, maybe, just maybe, it might encourage other luxury goods companies to start thinking outside the normal corporate sponsorship box. Arts funding could be about to get a whole lot more exciting.

See also

Louis Vuitton