When Campari Group celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010, the art world sang it “Happy Birthday.” The Milan spirits company had turned to the non-profit Art Production Fund to curate its celebration and got performance artist Kalup Linzy in drag, James Franco crooning “Proud Mary”—and some of the world’s leading collectors drinking bright-red Campari negronis.
These days, the phrase “cocktails by…” appears on virtually every invitation to a gallery, museum or art-world party. Brands of vodka, gin and tequila, both top-shelf and ones who wish to be thought of as such, are racing to ally themselves with the busy, buzzy art world. Let the beer brewers have sporting events, so the thinking goes, Champagne is served in art-fair VIP lounges with a regularity that would make a countess swoon. But it wasn’t always this way. In recent years, changes have taken place that make the business partnership of art and alcohol more tempting—and more profitable. The spirits industry has apparently done the math and figured that “art = money + taste.”
People who attend contemporary art events “like beautiful things”—paintings, fine wines, good foods, says Nicholas Ricroque, a brand manager at Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, “and they have the purchasing power” to get them. Ricroque, who overseas the Ruinart Champagne brand, says Ruinart has invested seven figures at art events around the world betting that art lovers are the perfect customers for their $120-per-bottle bubbly.
This all started, as much in the modern art world did, with Andy Warhol. In 1985, the Pop art star had dinner with Michel Roux, then-president of Carillon Importers, which distributed the little-known Absolut brand in the U.S. Absolut had already started an unusual ad campaign that featured its “Product of Sweden” bottle; an effort to sidestep anti-Soviet feeling during the cold war. Warhol agreed to do an Absolut Warhol ad for $65,000, according to The Absolut Book, a history of the long-running ad campaign. Keith Haring was next.
“People don’t realize how radical it was then,” to put the work of unknown artists on the back of magazines says Andras Szanto, who helped develop Absolut’s huge 2012 art commission at Art Basel Miami Beach. (The striking, giant bar-slash-artwork, installed oceanside, was by the noted Cuban collective Los Carpinteros.) In the past, artists had often been commissioned to do wine-labels—Chagall and Picasso designed Moutin Rothschild’s—but the Absolut campaign eventually expanded to include dozens of artists. Meanwhile, sales of the vodka grew 42 percent annually from 1985 to 1988. By 1990, the Wall Street Journal had dubbed Absolut “the most popular Swedish import since Ingrid Bergman.”
Sculptor Carole Feuerman was one of the first female Absolut artists. In the late 1980s, a trio of her hyper-realistic life-size sculptures of revelers, Absolut cocktails in hand, were put in a glass boxes and driven around the New York City on the backs of trucks. Press coverage and auction sales followed almost immediately. “It was wonderful, I couldn’t believe it” said the artist, who has since won top prizes at the Florence and Beijing biennials.
Alcohol-brand managers have found that, more so than the wealthy ballet patron, opera geek or luxury goods buyer, art folks tend to be hedonistic. Consider Art Basel Miami, the industry’s biggest annual U.S. fair held every December. In 2002, the fair’s first official year, some guests were handed personal Moet Chandon bottles and straws as they stepped aboard yachts ferrying them across the Intercoastal waterway. By pre-recession 2007, perhaps the fair’s most lush and feckless, Krug was taking guests on balloon rides over Miami. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the owners of some of these liquor companies buy art themselves: Bernard Arnault, for example, CEO of LVMH, parent of many of the brands which cultivate a profile in the art world, is one of the world’s leading collectors.
Restaurateur Medhat Ibrahim owns Casa La Femme in SoHo, where clients over the decades have included a slew of art dealers. So when he opted to launch a vintage tequila brand, Qui, he partnered with The Hole Gallery. The clientele at art events is “pre-selected” says Ibrahim, to be potential buyers of higher-end liquor.
It’s not all sunshine and elderflowers, of course. Spirits sponsors want signage at an art event, sometimes tons of it, notes Jeffrey Lawson, head of Miami’s Untitled Art fair. Worse yet can be the arrival of scantily clad girls wearing a brand’s banner and serving shots, a visual that doesn’t quite jive with classy contemporary art sales.
Ruinart, however, has tuxedoed gentlemen rolling carts topped with silver ice buckets. The company now focuses its entire marketing campaign at art fairs, says Ricroque. “How do we know it’s working?” Ruinart Champagne sales at last year’s Art Basel Miami—at $20 a glass—“were up 25 percent,” he says.