IN CENTURY'S past, the great patrons for the arts were royalty, the aristocracy and the church. Michelangelo would not have painted the Sistine Chapel if it weren't for the commission from Pope Julius II, nor Velasquez, Rubens and Van Dyck's masterpieces but for the patronage of European royalty and aristocracy. These fabulously wealthy institutions and individuals funded important cultural heritage that draws millions of visitors to Europe each year.
Over time, that patronage has shifted to the state and wealthy philanthropists, big business and - in the past 20 years or so - the luxury fashion empires. Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Prada have established foundations to support and promote contemporary artists around the world. Prada also funds a university chair in the philosophy of aesthetics. MaxMara has thrown open the doors to its art collection, and there are luxury brands that reinforce their commitments to traditional crafts by sponsoring costumes and sets for opera and ballet.
Cartier was one of the first to burnish its social responsibility credentials by establishing The Foundation in 1984. It is a not-for-profit organisation completely funded by the jewellery house and is in many ways atypical of today's big-ticket art establishment with what it presents. It cultivates all creative fields and genres of contemporary art, ranging from design to photography, from paint to video art, and from fashion to performance art. These are presented in their striking exhibition space in Paris designed by Jean Nouvel.
'We produce and commission all our exhibitions in Paris, however, it is one of our tasks to raise awareness of the arts we present worldwide,' says Isabelle Gaudefroy, the director of programming and artistic projects. Recently exhibitions have toured Tokyo, Milan and Moscow. The Foundation also has strong links with Hong Kong and China, she says. For instance they donated The Flying Frenchman by sculptor Cesar, which was installed in 1992 at the Cultural Centre in Hong Kong. Four years later, they arranged the famous Le Pot Dor?sculpture by Jean-Pierre Raynaud to be exhibited in Beijing's Forbidden City.
While the Foundation is run completely independently, it shares a common spirit with Cartier's creative teams. Clearly, there is a natural synergy between arts and luxury, and in an era of mass production it is important for luxury companies to support art and culture. However, Cartier is no longer the only example of such corporate philanthropy in France.
LVMH commissioned Frank Gehry in 2006 to design a building in the Bois de Boulogne (at a rumoured cost of US$200 million) to hold its chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault's vast corporate and private collections of art. The large cloud-like structure will house 20th-century classics from Picasso, Yves Klein and Andy Warhol to modern works by Richard Serra and Jeff Koons. It is a focal point for the Louis Vuitton Foundation's mission to share art and engage the younger generation, which has withdrawn into its own technology-filled isolation.
Meanwhile, there is an Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris and Tokyo where exhibitions and initiatives are held, from young arts projects to sponsored art exhibitions and talks around the world - Grayson Perry's exhibition and talk at the British Museum last autumn being just one example.
'The group's very identity has grown stronger through art patronage, based on efforts that combine know-how, quality, creativity and innovation,' says Arnault. 'The group's success is rooted in this constant interaction between artisanship and art.'
Many of the luxury empires regard it as an honour and duty to support the arts. The Maramotti family, owners of MaxMara, for instance are avid collectors of modern art from the post-war to present day. In 2000, they decided to convert their vast former factory in Reggio Emilia, near Bologna, into a permanent exhibition space for their collection, to share it with connoisseurs and the public.
The permanent collection on display includes Henry Moore sculptures and significant artworks by Cy Twombly, Bill Viola and Julian Schnabel. There are also regular themed exhibitions. One of the ways they add to the art collection is to fund a biennial contemporary art prize for female artists with the Whitechapel Gallery in London. In 2011, the winner was Andrea B?ttner for her work The Poverty of Riches, which is now on display.
Miuccia Prada's interests have similarly broadened from fashion into contemporary art. It began in the early '90s, when Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, a flamboyant Tuscan who is the group's chief executive, began to collect post-war and contemporary art. 'Our interest came about almost by chance,' Prada once said in an interview. 'We had some friends who were sculptors, and when they saw one of our buildings in an old industrial space, they said: this is perfect for sculpture, you should do exhibitions.' In the years that followed, the couple met artists, learnt all they could, and bought pieces - but not as collectors. 'For me, art is about learning and about living with people. It's alive. Collecting is a little bit dead.'
In 1995, they established the Fondazione Prada, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to contemporary art that has earned them the respect of the international art world. The foundation has pushed barriers, launching out-of-the-box projects that included placing the avant-garde Prada Transformer building in Seoul and exhibiting the works of Carsten H?ller, whose installation Upside Down Mushroom Room (in which gigantic topsy-turvy toadstools slowly revolved from the ceiling) was a sell-out success.
The couple's personal collection has outgrown their gallery space in Milan, so to display their art treasures, they have commissioned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to undertake a massive restoration of a huge industrial complex in southern Milan to feature a cinema, auditorium and museum tower. The ambitious project is due to be completed in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, a new venue that opened in a spectacularly restored baroque palazzo at the Venice biennale last year provides an example of how Prada is changing the way art is experienced around the world.
Arts philanthropy also extends to the performing arts. The world's oldest manufacturer of fine watches Vacheron Constantin became a patron of the Opera National in Paris in 2007 and provides funds for opera and ballet productions. Performances are notoriously expensive to produce, with hundreds of costumes to be made and complex sets to build, so ballet and opera companies are always looking for benefactors with open wallets.
Vacheron Constantin reasoned that both companies share an extraordinary artistic heritage that they continuously nourish and enrich; to this end, they celebrated their role as modern-day benefactors by creating a 40mm watch dial depicting Marc Chagall's vast ceiling centrepiece at the Opera Garnier (originally painted in 1964). The M?tiers d'Art is a unique timepiece that has toured the world and will be held in their private collection.
The fashion and performing arts world of course, have long been creatively entwined. Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace and Christian Lacroix found another creative outlet in designing costumes for opera and ballet. Last year, Lacroix designed 77 costumes for Paris' Opera National's new version of the ballet La Source. The production was also partly funded by Swarovski Crystal, which donated two million crystals for the dazzling costumes. Swarovski similarly donated millions of crystals to the English National Ballet's productions of Strictly Gershwin and The Nutcracker.
In 2010, Tod's concluded that backing the performing arts was part of its social responsibilities and covered the costs of the productions for one artistic season of the world famous La Scala opera house in Milan. Working closely with choreographer and lead dancer Gianluca Schiavoni, a conceptual art video depicting a short ballet called An Italian Dream was commissioned. Tod's craftsmen making the iconic pebble shoe inspired the choreography, and under the banner Made in Italy, the video was shown in Tokyo and Beijing to highlight the best in Italian craftsmanship to Tod's growing emerging markets.
The contribution of Euro2 million to La Scala from the luxury accessories brand, which had revenues of Euro806.4 million in 2010, was understood to be the largest single luxury-company donation to the opera house. Since then Diego della Valle, the visionary president of Tod's Group, has turned his sights to Italy's historic landmarks and donated Euro25 million to the restoration of the 2,000-year-old Colosseum in Rome.
'A monument that represents Italy in the world must be restored,' says della Valle. 'A company that represents Made in Italy stepped forward to say, 'If you need us, we are here.''