Are brands the new cultural patrons?

I was recently in Venice, taking in the glorious sights, including one of my favourite art galleries in the world, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Peggy was a highly influential and acquisitive patron of 20th century art, often buying items that didn’t sell, and works for which there was, as yet, no market, just because she loved them. Her collection, housed in a palazzo on the Canale Grande is bursting at the seams with the cubist, surrealist and abstract works of Picasso, Ernst, Kandinsky, Magritte and many more. She actually gave Jackson Pollock his first show. Peggy used to say that it was her duty to “protect the art of her own time.” In her way, she was helping to give birth to modern art culture.

5600834909_20a457e250_zPeggy was different to the patrons of renaissance Italy, like the Medici family of Florence,  who essentially ordered works of art or architecture to order from the top artists of the day. They would enter into a contract with an artist that specified how much he would be paid, what kinds of materials would be used, how long it would take to complete, and what the subject of the work would be. These commissions promoted not simply the ruler but the prestige of the city. Patronage was a tool of rulership and diplomacy. Peggy, by contrast, patronised the artists that she loved, and was open to being educated about their work, confessing that at the start “my knowledge of art ended at impressionism.”

 As I walked around Venice, I started to notice the the Paul & Shark sponsored gondola stops. Apparently, the Italian apparel brand supports the restoration of the gondolas,  and provides sweaters for the gondoliers. This partnership has been going on for well over ten years, and seems to have strategic congruence – an Italian brand with a strong maritime theme associating itself with this icon of Italian waters. And, as I understand it, not merely putting its names to the Gondola stops, but helping to preserve this great cultural institution.


Scratch a bit deeper, and you find that there are some other interesting acts of preservation patronage going on.

Italian luxury brand Bulgari has donated €1.5 million to the city of Rome to restore the staircase (Spanish Steps) that connects the Piazza di Spagna with the Trinita dei Monti church.

Fendi has also pledged millions to restore five of Rome’s most-loved fountains, beginning with the Trevi. Tod’s in 2011 announced that it would pay €25 million towards the renovation of the Colosseum. And, the founder and owner of Diesel, Renzo Rosso, pledged €5 milion in 2012 to clear up the 400-year-old Rialto Bridge In Venice.

Prime minister Matteo Renzi of Italy, this March,  called for private investors to help restore and maintain Pompeii and other monuments, after a series of wall collapses at Pompeii. “Italy is a country of culture and so I challenge businessmen. What are you waiting for? If the private sector can keep the wall standing upright, why not allow it to?” he said.

These brands are almost literally strengthening their foundations in Italian culture through these acts of patronage.  Of course, they will find ways to reflect in the glory of their benefaction, but these are undoubtedly legitimate acts of social responsibility, made all the more significant because of Italy’s scarce government resources for such projects.

It will be interesting to see if brands in other countries are providing their patronage to help preserve their cultural heritage.  It’s an interesting example of how corporate social responsibility could be evolving into corporate cultural responsibility.

McQ Thinking is a boutique brand and communication consultancy that partners with the marketing and advertising communities. Find out more at


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