Interview with Saskia Neumann
Global Art Manager at Absolut & Director of
Absolut Art Award
Foto: Roberto Chamorro
© Absolut Vodka
Creative expression knows no bounds at Absolut, one of the world’s most passionate sponsors of contemporary art. Art and culture are a major part of how this world leader in premium spirits expresses its brand and its values.
As Global Art Manager, Saskia Neuman steers the art program at Absolut. She comes from the art world herself, has worked as a curator prior to joining Absolut, and is also a respected art and culture editor. In an indepth conversation with Dr. Ellen-Andrea Seehusen of International Arts Management, Neuman talked about the approach and ideas that anchor a broad sweep of Absolut’s remarkable art programs, which extend not only across a wide range of disciplines but have built a rich heritage over the years.
Bottle by Andy Warhol, © Absolut
A multi-disciplinary approach
Neuman makes it seem deceptively simple as she says, “Artistic collaboration stands at the heart of what we do.” While that is most certainly what lies at the core, Absolut champions a multi-disciplinary approach to its art programs that is simultaneously educational, experiential and accessible. It works with contemporary artists, architects, musicians, designers, fashion designers and more. Its art programs have encompassed everything from glassware-collaborations to artistic installations to great
Absolut champions a multi-disciplinary approach to its art programs that is simultaneously educational, experiential and accessible
collaborations with musicians and DJs. By commissioning works from emerging and mid-career artists, the former state-controlled company chooses edgy self-critical themes to engage not just critics and aficionados, but the average person-on-the-street. In Neuman’s words, “Absolut really sees potential in all kinds of artistic expression.”
An impressive range of initiatives
The first art collaboration by the company was initiated in 1985, with well-known artist Andy Warhol who make an artwork depicting the Absolut Vodka bottle. This launched a very organic process and turned out to be the starting point of the string of spectacular artistic collaborations for which Absolut is now internationally known. The company has had artistic collaborations with well-known artists and creatives such as Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois, Annie Leibovitz, Spike Jonze and Swedish House Mafia. Today the Absolut Art Collection contains about 850 works documenting their collaborations in the Spiritmuseum in Stockholm.
Absolut Art Award 2015, Foto: Roberto Chamorro, © Absolut
As Neuman points out, the brand’s involvement has worn different kinds of clothes throughout the years. In the beginning, from the eighties until the early nineties, it was more about an advertisement strategy. Then, there was a low in the mid-nineties, where art was transfused into collaborations with creative talent more generally, from Jean-Paul Gautier to Lenny Kravitz. In the early 2000s, short films were being created with interesting directors and comedians. Then in 2009, the Absolut Art Award was initiated, because Absolut wanted to get back to where they started. This brought the program a full circle and placed the emphasis back on artistic collaboration.
The company has had artistic collaborations with well-known artists and creatives such as Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois, Annie Leibovitz and
One of the most unique and extraordinary initiatives at Absolut today is the Absolut Art Bar, through which the company collaborates with artists, and express what Absolut is about through its products. The Absolut Art Bar allows contemporary artists from all different genres, including musicians and DJs, to come together and participate in its world and create their dream bar. The artist curates the entire program, including the music and drinks - a natural way of interacting with the brand and with the product. “I have yet to meet an artist that doesn’t love it,” remarks Neuman. “The beauty of the Absolut Art Bar concept, is not only do we support the exploration into a new kind of creativity, aspiration, installation, but we are also providing a platform for the creative collaborator and new talent, their friends as well as their community.” The Absolut Art Bars are as multidisciplinary as possible and, based on the artists vision, showcases the Absolut product range in a wide variety of ways.
The Absolut Art Award on the other hand is to support art and give back to the artists. The award is also not based on any specific art form. It was initiated to mark Absolut’s 30 years of creative collaborations. Initially a slightly smaller award, it was enlarged in 2012 with a more transparent selection process. The award recognizes both art writing as well as artwork. Explains Neuman, “We feel the critique around art is just as important as the art itself. And there aren’t many who invest in that. So, we want to support making publications about art.”
A genuine and long-standing commitment
Neuman’s understanding of the art space helps make the program at Absolut a natural fit that is anchored with a well-defined strategy. She is very clear about the fact that in order to be successful, any corporate art program must begin with the question “Why?”. Once you have the answer to why it is important for the company, it must be followed by the next important question: How will the program align with the brand? Does this engagement carry the voice of the brand’s beliefs?
Neuman believes that an art program for any company must be very much about relationships and common language, which demands a genuine interest in the arts.
Then, and only then, it is imperative to put a strategy in place that makes sense for the company and correlates to the overall brand communication. The next challenge is to get everyone in the company on board to make sure that it has a buy-in from all different facets of the company, for which internal communication and education are immensely important. And finally, it must be genuine and a long-standing commitment rather than mere “culture washing” as the artistic community is very wary of companies that quickly dip in and dip out of arts engagement.
Neuman believes that an art program for any company must be very much about relationships and common language, which demands a genuine interest in the arts. And what really works for Absolut is this consistent interest, which has led to authentic collaboration with artists built on shared values of openness and creativity in a celebratory setting.
Interview: Ellen-Andrea Seehusen
Text: Ellen-Andrea Seehusen
Photos: © Absolut