Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum of American Art building, September 2014. Photo: Ed Lederman.

The conversation went something a bit like this:
Taxi driver: “So y’off anyw’ere nice then?”
Me: “A train to Manchester Airport and then a flight to New York.”
Taxi driver: “Ahhreet. Off on your hols?”
Me: “No; I’ve been invited to the re-opening of the Whitney Museum by one of the investors who has helped fund a new building and stuff.”
Taxi driver: “The Whitney Museum? No disrespect to’ dead or owt but I wa’ never a big fan of Whitney Houston. Not my kind o’ music.”
Me: “No, no, no. It’s the Whitney Museum of American Art. They’ve managed to raise $750million to help relocate it and give it a new home.”
Taxi driver: “Well, I think it’s bloody disgusting. There’s people starving on the streets and folk going without and what-not. They should spend their money on stuff like that.”

Fast forward 24 hours and I’m at the other side of the ‘big pond’, at the Whitney Museum of American Art’ re-launch party hosted by the Italian fashion label Max Mara, the event’s sponsorship partner. It’s the usual fashion affair – over-Botoxed women and men on-the-prowl who faux-fuss over each other like dogs sniffing each other’s arses – but there is one man I am keen to talk to: Ian Griffiths, the artistic director of Max Mara who originally hails from Dronfield of all places. Surely a Derbyshire man can speak plainly as to what this is really all about?

“I think, on fashion’s part, there’s always been a need to cosy-up to the art world and I think that the relationship in the past was quite simple: fashion needed [the art world’s] kudos because it wasn’t taken very seriously and art needed [the fashion industry’s] money. But that’s changing. Fashion is now being taken more seriously in its own right and so now a lot of these relationships [that fashion brands have with the art world] are completely symbiotic and not for cynical reasons at all.”

Griffiths is, of course, talking about the complex relationship between fashion and art; a relationship which has come under scrutiny due to the way booming luxury goods brands have increasingly made arts philanthropy a standard part of their corporate strategy. So what’s the connection between an Italian fashion brand best known for its cashmere coats and the new Renzo Piano-designed Big Apple art institution filled with Basquiats, Warhols and Hoppers?

Max Mara’s Luigi Maramotti, the elegant and erudite chairman of what is still a family-run business, fills in the gaps: “My father [Achille Maramotti] started collecting art in the 1950s and I helped him when I was living here in the United States in the late ’70s, early ’80s; getting in touch with artists like [Julian] Schnabel, Peter Halley and David Salle. Since the 1960s, we have had contemporary art hanging in the Max Mara factory, and people would interact with the paintings. Funnily enough, that site is now the place where the Collezione Maramotti is now located.”

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Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia.

Collezione Maramotti (not to be confused with Fondazione Giulia Maramotti, which is Max Mara’s fashion design school) is a private contemporary art collection housed in the northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia, and is open to the public with prior booking.

“What’s not well known is that a part of the Collezione Maramotti is very much linked to New York and the art scene here in Manhattan,” Maramotti continues. “Don’t forget, New York is not just about the history of America, it’s also the history of Italy and Italian immigrants. And so we have always loaned pictures from our collection to the Whitney Biennale.”

Max Mara’s relationship with art is long and genuine. What started out as Achille Maramotti’s passion for collecting now feeds the future generation of artists through the company’s five-year-old art award, the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, in collaboration with London’s Whitechapel Gallery. This year’s winner, the Glasgow-based artist Corin Sworn, was rewarded with a truckload of valuable press attention and a six-month, fully funded Italian residency – not bad for any artist feeling the pinch of government cuts to the arts.

And Max Mara isn’t the only luxury brand with a respected art prize. Bulgari, the Italian jeweller made famous by Elizabeth Taylor’s appetite for its deliciously decadent baubles, has its Bulgari Art Award worth $80,000.

“To be acknowledged after 30-odd years of painting is such an honour,” said Ildiko Kovacs, this year’s winner and recipient of a $50,000 commission and a three-month artist’s residency in Rome worth $30,000. “It’s really lovely.”

While there is no doubt that the Max Mara and Bulgari art awards are great examples of how luxury goods brands can make a tangible difference when it comes to arts philanthropy, they can’t help but be dwarfed by the Herculean efforts of Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man (personal net worth: $US33 billion) and the big boss of the world’s biggest luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Last year, Arnault unveiled the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris; a great big glass and steel ship of a building which was constructed over 13 years on public land with $US143 million of private funds, and which is to be given as “a gift to the city” in 50 years’ time.

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Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

Inside is Arnault’s collection of modern and contemporary art – everything from Alberto Giacometti sculpture to Wolfgang Tillmans photography – with areas for workshops for school groups and non-profit organisations, and the usual cafe, bookshop, library and performance spaces.

“The fact that our [luxury] brand names are recognised across the world and their activities [like fashion shows] are often covered on TV, means that when we host a show for an artist it can attract a wider circle of people,” Arnault told the Financial Times in an interview on the eve of the museum’s opening last year. “We see our role as bringing the artists we show at the [foundation] closer to the [fashion conscious] public, and encouraging a desire for innovation.”

It’s only fitting that Louis Vuitton should be at the helm of this 21st-century art-fashion love-in. After all, it was this label that started a playfully provocative conversation about the boundaries of fashion and art in 2001 when Marc Jacobs, then Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of womenswear, sent out LV’s iconic Speedy bag covered in Stephen Sprouse graffiti. So successful was that collaboration in reviving Louis Vuitton’s fortunes and in redrawing the luxury fashion map, that more LV art collaborations followed: Takashi Murakami in 2005, Richard Prince in 2007 and Yayoi Kusama in 2012. The Murakami collaboration alone generated $US300 million in sales.

“My approach to art is exactly the same as my approach to fashion: straightforward and anti-intellectual,” Jacobs told me on a trip to Tokyo, where we visited Murakami’s work studios. “I never over-think whether people will love or hate something. What we do is from the gut and very instinctive and not about how successful it will be in terms of numbers. We hope that whatever we do translates into sales but I don’t sit down and calculate it all. What compels me as a designer is simply the desire to make things.” The reappropriation of artworks onto a wearable surface is nothing new – fashion’s history is littered with genius examples such as Yves Saint Laurent’s homages to Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse; Vivienne Westwood’s Boucher-printed corsets; and Dolce & Gabbana’s use of Old Master paintings of The Madonna and Child this season.

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From L-R: Yves Saint Laurent’s homage to Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso, Dolce & Gabbana’s use of Old Master paintings of the Madonna and the Child and Vivienne Westwood’s Boucher-printed corset.

But what is new is the power that luxury goods companies have to associate the fashion-art collaboration with an art gallery experience within the same brand, and then – here comes the magic – blur the lines between the two.

Like Bernard Arnault says: “It can be easier for people to go to a fashion store than an art opening.” One designer who is keen to keep her fashion separate from her arts philanthropy is Miuccia Prada. Mrs P, along with her husband, Prada Group CEO Patrizio Bertelli, has just opened the doors on the brand-spanking new Fondazione Prada space in a yet-to-be-gentrified part of Milan. “I started with an idea, which was to do something that I think is important and relevant,” Prada said in an interview with The Guardian. “I wanted to make culture attractive to the young [so they would see] that it is necessary to your life. My intuition – and after many years, I realise that my main quality is intuition – was that it would be good to have a place where people could live with ideas. [Art] can answer political and even existential questions.”

Even if the Fondazione Prada doesn’t cure your existential crisis, for ?10 you can enjoy the “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas-designed space which includes a cinema, a 1950s retro cafe and a hotchpotch of exhibition spaces which showcase some of the 900 works that Mrs P has collected since she established the foundation in 1993.

“I hate the idea of being a collector,” she said. “I really hate it. I’m not a collector. I grew up with the idea that art is for everybody and not a matter of private ownership, but sometimes you want to have it. I am and want to be an active part of shaping culture, but I am patronising nothing. I hate all of that. I don’t want to be perceived like that, which is why we never sponsor exhibitions.” It is no overstatement when I say Milan has been desperate for a stimulating cultural hangout like this for too long, the city being devoid of the world-class art attractions that the likes of London, New York and Paris have to offer. But it has taken a private enterprise – a luxury fashion brand famous for its shoes and bags – to do it, as Italian government is mired in controversy and the local economy struggles to rebound from its longest recession on record.

In the same spirit, Arnault’s Fondation Louis Vuitton (again, a luxury fashion brand famous for its bags) gives Paris a new private museum at a time when private museums in France are like proverbial rocking horse shit.

“Fashion is not art, but designers and artists speak the same language. So they are close, and sometimes they want to share ideas and work together,” Arnault says. Max Mara’s Luigi Maramotti agrees: “In reality, fashion makers are explorers and what they do is deeply social and anthropological. Artists are explorers too. They live on the fringe. So, for us, it’s natural to search out a connection with artists.”

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Max Mara’s tote bag designed by Renzo Piano

Back at the Whitney/Max Mara party, as the crowd ohhs and ahhs over the Max Mara’s new white leather tote bag designed by Renzo Piano for the occasion, the conversation with the taxi driver looms large in my head. Was he right? Is it right that when people are struggling to feed themselves from Barnsley to Brooklyn that such a huge amount of money is being spent on a new home for a load of paintings?

“I think he raises a good point,” says Adam Weinberg, Director at the Whitney. “The world is in a mess right now. But I don’t think that you fund the arts to the exclusion of social services. The money spent on art in the grand scheme of things is actually not that huge globally.”

“I think it would be a very sad world if nothing was provided for the arts,” agrees Ian Griffiths. “One of things that impresses me about the Whitney collection is how it holds a mirror up to society. It shows a picture of who we are, who we have been and who we might be. I can’t say what proportion but I think that it’s important that something is always provided for the arts. A society that doesn’t invest in the arts isn’t going to go forward.”