Art Galleries Team Up with Vintners to Lure Buyers

To the casual observer, the March 7 gathering at Beijing's Philippe Starck–designed LAN Club looked like the start of any Saturday night. Members of the city's business and cultural elite, dressed to impress, sipped from champagne flutes and mingled as the noise level steadily rose. But the guests were there not just to drink or dance: they were celebrating the opening of Chinese photographer Liu Gang's exhibition in the space. Organized in conjunction with Beijing's Üllens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), the exhibit of absurdist photos, titled "Merlin, Champagne and Regalia," represents a new kind of extravagance not seen before by China's rapidly growing art community. "Their lavish openings are certainly something to behold," says Lee Ambrozy, a local observerwho writes the art blog Sinopop. "Black tie, bodyguards, champagne fountains and all!"

For UCCA artistic director Jérôme Sans, cofounder of Paris's Palais de Tokyo, the Seine-side contemporary art museum, the link between the art world and nightlife has always existed, but collaborations between the two have started picking up momentum in today's recessionary environment. UCCA has just launched a monthly wine series, where vintage and vintner get as much attention as—if not more than—the art. The April event featured Chile's Viña Casablanca, "known for its consistently fresh, exuberant and elegant wines," as the invitation stated, without even mentioning the art. With wine and, increasingly, spirits being displayed on a par with the visual works, the relationship between art and drinking is moving from incidental to symbiotic.

It's also becoming strategic. The struggling art world, long supported by prospectors living off the financial bubble, is looking for new ways to survive. For galleries fighting to stay in the game, the mission now is to attract new audiences and expand the demographics of collectors. One way to do that is to link art more directly with a fun and fast-paced lifestyle. "This comes out of a desire to tap into similar client databases with the assumption that those who consume wine are likely to purchase art and vice versa," says Gabe Suk, senior representative in Asia for the wine auction company Hart Davis Hart.

In London, "pop up" bars in gallery spaces and late-night art openings have injected a youthful atmosphere into the sometimes staid gallery scene. GSK Contemporary at Royal Academy of the Arts in London staged a series of late-night openings earlier this year, and also employed the hip East End restaurant and cabaret club Bistrotheque to set up a pop-up eatery called Flash inside its Burlington House gallery. In addition, it installed a neon "art bar" in one of its 18th-century paneled rooms. "We're looking at someone in his late 20s or early 30s who is creative, on the scene and wants to call himself a collector," explains Tally Beck, director of Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. "The target now is the new collector."

To lure that new collector, Beck organized a catered affair with music—"basically a big party"—for a recent opening of Xie Guoping's first solo exhibition, titled "No Trace," held at Beijing's Dongbianmen Watchtower gallery. After spending a few hours in the space, the viewing moved to Beck's home, where Xie's canvases were also hung, and the real party began. Rather than present the artwork in a sterile environment, Beck wanted to demonstrate how the pieces would look in a home setting, making them more accessible and saleable. Besides, there's always the hope that a bit of booze will encourage guests to make impulse art purchases. Darren Weatherby-Blythe, who opened the shop Art&Wine in Warwick, England, last year, has stumbled upon a similar strategy. "The wine element helps people get across the gallery threshold," he says. "Wine is more inclusive, so it helps break down the art myth."

Some London galleries are cashing in on the wine trade by renting out space for tastings. In January, the specialist distributor Bibendum Wine used Charles Saatchi's new gallery to host a huge tasting of 800 wines from around the world. The event, broadcast on Twitter, was one of the most popular tweets that day. "For a while we even out-Twittered Barack Obama," says Sophie Shields of Bibendum. London's new Double Club is designed to be a bar and an installation all at once. One half features Congo-themed murals while the other represents the Western world, with a wine menu that has made it one of the trendiest drinking dens in London, serving 1996 Château Lanessan at $15 a glass.

Liquor companies are also beginning to realize the marketing potential of high-quality art. At Château Smith Haut Lafitte just outside Bordeaux, behemoth bronze sculptures by the contemporary Irish artist Barry Flanagan sit between the vines. Guests to the vineyard can combine tastings with art tours. According to the owners, modern art is key to the identity of the grand cru classé estate and helps project the image of a forward-thinking brand.

Some liquor companies are even creating their own art: 42 Below vodka commissioned "OneDreamRush," a series of 42 film shorts no longer than 42 seconds created by up-and-coming international directors. Most recently, it screened in Sydney, where there is a growing movement to meld art and wine. "Today there are even wineries hosting rock concerts," says Campbell Thompson, an Australian whose company, The Wine Republic, imports cool-climate wines into China.

The oldest champagne house, Ruinart, has commissioned work by the Dutch artist Martin Baas, who used Murano glass and Ruinart bottles to create a surrealistic chandelier that appears to melt into the table. The piece went on sale at the Basel Miami Beach art fair and was a boon for the label and the artist, who appeared in several design magazines alongside his creation. Swiss entrepreneur and art collector Donald M. Hess is committed in the long term to mixing wine with art: he will open a museum dedicated to the American light artist James Turrell in the Bodega Colomé winery in Argentina, his third such project after museums in Napa Valley and Paarl, South Africa. A fourth is planned for Australia's Barossa Valley.

Whether or not such ventures will help contemporary art survive, at least they're promoting something we need now more than ever: a good time.