Interview with Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, Davidoff
Foto: © Davidoff Art Initiative
The Davidoff Art Initiative supports contemporary art and artists in the Caribbean, primarily in the Dominican Republic, where much of Oettinger Davidoff's tobacco business is based and where most of its employees live and work. Thus, the initiative has become an extension of the Davidoff company’s DNA: a long-standing commitment to artistry, craftsmanship, community and quality.
Launched in 2012, the program aims to strengthen art organizations in the Dominican Republic, shares knowledge and expertise about contemporary art, and fosters a two-way cultural engagement between the Caribbean and the rest of the world.
There are four global program areas: Art Residency, Art Dialogues, Art Grants, and Art Editions. The centerpiece, the Davidoff Art Residency, began in 2013 and provides Dominican and Caribbean artists, selected by an international nominating council composed of experts in the field of visual arts, opportunities to participate in selected three-month leading residency programs in five locations worldwide. Artists from outside the Caribbean region can also participate in a residency program in the Dominican Republic. These annual residencies promote professional mobility, cultural immersion, and creative exchange.
Since 2015, the Davidoff Art Initiative has collaborated with The School of Design in Altos de Chavón, Casa de Campo, La Romana, Dominican Republic, on operating a residence for international emerging artists and curators.
EAS: What was the catalyst for starting your Art Initiative? Was there a history in supporting the arts at Davidoff?
HKH: There was no history, but the catalyst was when I joined the company in 2011, and learned that Davidoff had two major sponsorship activities. One was in the sports area - which you know, as a tobacco brand, was not a good fit. And the other was a big music effort - where we were heading in the same situation, because younger people were not interested in cigars.
So this gave me an opportunity to look at what other possibilities were out there, and I liked the possibility of engaging in art for two reasons. One: Everything we do in our company is “art,” because everything is handmade. It’s the art of growing, it’s the art of blending, it’s the art of rolling. Secondly, we are a company based in Basel. So I went to Marc Spiegler, the CEO of Art Basel, and said “What do you think of bringing us on board as a sponsor of Art Basel?” - thereby extending the notion of art to include craftsmanship as well. And he was very excited about it and we basically agreed that this was a great platform for Davidoff.
Then I said that being a sponsor is too simple: you write a check; what else can we do that is something more and much more genuine? And that’s when we got some outside help to craft the Davidoff Art Initiative, so that we could really become much more engaged. We did not want to build an art collection, but we really wanted to make a difference, so we created an Art Initiative which supports contemporary art and artists in the Caribbean, strengthens art organizations in the Dominican Republic, shares knowledge and expertise about contemporary art, and fosters cultural engagement between the Caribbean and the rest of the world. We are working toward these goals through four global program areas: the Davidoff Art Residency, Davidoff Art Dialogues, Davidoff Art Grants, and Davidoff Art Editions.
I saw with my own eyes at the beginning of my tenure, that the Caribbean art scene was very vibrant and had not yet been “discovered.” Everybody was focusing on Latin America, so it was just perfect, and that was a very different way of giving back to the community: 2000 of our over 3.500 employees live and work in the Caribbean and we make all the Davidoff products there.
And we knew already from our customer database, that a lot of our customers are either already art collectors or very interested in art. It made sense from many many angles to engage in art. And so we established the Davidoff Art Initiative as existing somewhere between philanthropy and corporate responsibility, and also to give voice to the DNA in the company, and that makes our people proud - not only of the cigars and the humidors that we are making, but also that we are playing a role in the community.
Foto: © Davidoff Art Initative
EAS: How does the selection process for artists and residencies work?
HKH: The selection process is very professional and that’s why I think it has become a very credible program. I’m on the selection committee, but as the only corporate member. We have put a very credible group together including Pablo Leon de La Barra, Guggenheim UBS Map Curator, Pablo Helguera from the MoMA in New York, Rocío Aranda-Alvarado from the Museo del Barrio in New York - all very professional people who make the selection. And then in addition to that we have a point of what we call nominators, so we have one for Europe, one for Latin America, one for Asia, who are looking for candidates; the artists can themselves apply directly, too. Basically when it comes to the international advisory council, we typically have a short list of 20 artists to choose from. So it’s a very rigorous and very credible. The most important thing in the selection process is that the artists have to clearly articulate what they want to accomplish in the three months of residency. Sometimes artists have difficulties articulating and expressing in words what they are going to do, so that’s sometimes the tough part.
Then you have to also think a bit about what this particular residency is about. If it is a match: the artist and the residence. And there are actually two of our residencies that want to have a final say about the participants. So in two of the residencies we present two artists to choose from. We haven’t had any disagreements yet, but they at least have a chance to put their vote in as well.
EAS: And the criteria: are you looking for emerging artists?
HKH: They are either young or mid-career artists. The first were more mid-career but it has actually switched to younger artists. So it’s a good mix. Our very competent advisory council has been very good at selecting talents. Sometimes an artist needs a little push, the ability and opportunity to focus on his or her craft for three months in a residence to really get over the hump. We offer each artist the possibility to organize one or two open studios during their residency in order to make a little bit of "noise" and hopefully help the artist to become known to a wider audience. Normally we collaborate with a gallery in the city where the residency took place in order to make a little bit of “noise” and hopefully help the artist to become known to a wider audience.
„We are here to try and help young career and mid-career artists who need a little bit of help to come to a place where they can maybe live from their art and become even more known.“
EAS: And what happens to the art that is created during the residency? Does it revert back to the company?
HKH: No, I was very clear from the beginning that we are not going to create a Davidoff art collection. That is not why we are here. We are here to try and help young career and mid-career artists, who need a little bit of help to reach a position where they can maybe live from their art and become even more known. We have an agreement with the artist that whatever they produce during their residency programs, we receive a small work, I think we pay a thousand dollars for it, so we have a documentation of whom we have supported. But that’s not a collection, its just a momento.
Foto: © Davidoff Art Initative
EAS: What is the impact on the brand, after five years of this initiative?
HKH: You know better than I: the answer is, we can’t answer that. When you get going on things like this you really have to have a long-term view - otherwise don’t get into it. So, I would rather talk about the impact in ten years’ time. But I have to admit a “noise effect” was created much much faster then I believed possible. Because our initiatve is, I’m very happy to say, perceived as being genuine. And we are very humble about that - we are not there to put ourselves in front, because we are not the artists or in the art field. But we really would like to make a difference in these artists’ lives, and that has become really well-appreciated.
The press support, the community support is remarkable. I mean we got the Dominican Republic Critics Award for last year. You know, because Davidoff is a tobacco company and it’s corporate, there’s always a kind of tension. So I’m very happy to see a change and I believe that the Initiative has had a positive impact on the brand in certain communities. And we have certainly reached a group of people thanks to our art initiative that we wouldn’t have reached before. It’s a whole new landscape, so I can not measure that in brand equity. But I think it is making an impact.
EAS: Has the art engagement become part of your corporate culture?
HKH: Of course, because it is exactly about that: we can link our values or DNA as a company to something that is an extension of what we do, but it’s still very different. So it’s sort of spreading the net a little bit further.
If you get into this, you have to realize that you’re in this for the long run before it has an impact on your brand or your company.
EAS: How did the employees react to this initiative?
HKH: Very, very positively. We have, for example, during Art Basel, employee tours, staff tours, that are highly subscribed. People like it and they are very proud of the fact that the Davidoff Art Initiative is really something where we are making a difference in how people look at art and in people’s lives. It’s sort of an untraditional way of giving back to the community. I mean we are giving all the basic support in terms of health care and schooling for children and all of these things, but the Initiative is basically a very different philanthropic project that our employees are very excited about.
EAS: Are you personally interested in art? Do you collect art?
HKH: I’m not a strategic collector, but I have always been interested in art. When I was a student at the University of Copenhagen I rented a room in which I integrated art touches. And when I made my first money, my parents were very shocked that I didn’t buy clothes or a Hi-Fi system, but a painting. When I earned a little more means, I started collecting. For my wife and I art and design is part of our leisure time. It is also important.
Foto: Davidoff Art Initiative
EAS: Do you enjoy spending time with the artists that you support?
HKH: Yes, absolutely. That’s an extra bonus.
“That I’m there and invoved means the initiative is genuine and that we are serious about it.”
EAS: Because you have always been personally engaged, I’m sure you get a lot of positive feedback.
HKH: Yes, absolutely. I must say that it’s positive. That I’m there and invoved means the initiative is genuine and that we are serious about it. The team and council are also very credible ambassadors for this and like what Davidoff is doing. The milestone of the engagement was probably when we actually physically built a residency in the Dominican Republic in 2014. We made a big investment into a building that we use for residencies three months a year for five international artists. For the rest of the year the building can be used as a school, so the community can use it. So I think this shows that even if it is a big investment for us, with reasonable means, we can make an actual difference, which is very nice.
EAS: What are some of the other highlights of the program?
HKH: Another milestone was when we opened the residence and sent the first couple of Caribbean artists to New York and then Beijing. That was a very nice moment as well, because that made the whole project come to life.
EAS: What is the feedback from the artists?
HKH: Fantastic. They are extremely gratified. Many of them are here at Art Basel at their own expense, because they really feel like they’re part of it and it made a difference in their lives, so the feedback is great.
EAS: Your lounges are always beautifully done. How important is product presentation in the art concept?
HKH: Product presentation is always important. You know, sitting down for forty-five minutes, half an hour, however long it takes, to smoke a cigar and have a great conversation - and why not about art? It’s the whole idea behind our tagline “time beautifully filled.” We give guests in the Davidoff Lounge the opportunity to enjoy the product along with the art.
EAS: And what advice would you give to other corporate executives if they say they are interested in creating an art program?
HKH: I would say two things to them. Number one: Make sure it’s not a marketing gig, because it will never be. You will never make it because that is what the art community is afraid of - that they are just part of a marketing gimmick. And the second thing is that if you get into this, you have to realize that you’re in this for the long haul, because otherwise it has no impact on your brand, your people or your company. So those are the two things I would say. Also, the third thing is: you have to find your project. Obviously for us it was the Caribbean - that’s were we are from. And you have to find your project in order to do something very different. So it is important and key to find the link to your company.
We invite you to sit down for 45 minutes, half an hour, however long it takes to smoke a cigar and have a great conversation - and why not about art?
EAS: Yes, and that is individual for each company.
Do you feel that it is important that companies and corporations engage in an art program?
HKH: I think it is important for us because it makes sense to us. But I can’t say it as a general statement. Because this is really very much about what your company is about. What I do want to say is that as governments are cutting their budgets to support art, museums, etc., obviously the private sector could have a much bigger role to play. And I think the biggest discussion is obviously the old classic tension between the art community and business. You know how some artists feel: “We don’t want to be associated with big corporations because we don’t want to compromise our creative freedom.” You know all these claims may be true and I support that. But, the artists also have to realize that there is obviously a benefit for them as well. There are actually companies who step up and are filling the gaps where governments are withdrawing. At the end of the day, it’s not pure marketing, but it is marketing in the sense that there is a brand effect, hopefully, and I think if both sides understand this, then a collaboration will be extremely helpful moving forward.
Interview: Ellen-Andrea Seehusen
Text: Shellie Karabell
Photos: Davidoff Art Initative