Invest in people who make good art

Finnish industrialist John Hartwall tells David Hedengren how he has successfully popularised art – and made it pay

5 min read

“Sometimes it is a good thing not to have a lot of experience, because then you don’t have any preconceived opinions.”

Those are the words of a retired Finnish industrialist who has approached the concept of an art gallery from a new point of view.

To John Hartwall it doesn’t really matter if you sell art or roll containers, the big challenge is the same – to reach the consumer with a good product in a cost-efficient manner.

“In central Helsinki, there are some 20 galleries more or less clustered together. They are mostly empty, except when free champagne is served on the opening of a new exhibition,” says Hartwall, who started to think about how to make the gallery experience more attractive to a broader group of people.

Gumbostrand Konst & Form

Gumbostrand Konst & Form

The result was Gumbostrand Konst & Form, which is housed in an old factory building on the Hartwall family’s estate. Once the production site of metal components for soda bottles, the refurbished 1950s building now accommodates a gallery, shop, bistro, and spaces for meetings and events.

“We thought that if you combine art and interior design – most people buy art for their homes, so the two are closely connected – you lower the threshold of buying art. I believe that was a correct assumption.”

The response from the local population in the small, traditionally Swedish-speaking town around 30 kilometres from Helsinki has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It has put the town on the map. Someone may be annoyed about the increased traffic, but overall people are very proud, just like they used to be about the factory.”

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When a cutting-edge art space replaces industry as the lifeblood of a Finnish town, it is symptomatic of the larger trend where Western economies are becoming increasingly service and innovation-driven.

And innovation is an area where the former chief executive of K. Hartwall, a global provider of load-carrier solutions, feels that industry can learn from the art domain.

“There is a lack of creativity in the corporate world. As an economist and engineer, it is fascinating to talk with artists, who have a much more open way of thinking,” says Hartwall.

On the other hand, he feels that industry and business have a lot to teach the art world, especially when it comes to the systematic search for good art investments.

“You need to know the art and artist as well as the buyer, who can be anyone from a museum to a young couple establishing their first home. Trying to understand the entire value chain and how we as a gallery can add value along the way has been an exciting experience.”

And although Hartwall considers there are similarities in value creation, regardless of whether you are working in a business-to-business industry or selling art, he recognises the uniqueness of how art is priced.

“There is an aspect of gambling to it. If you buy a piece by a young artist, the dynamic is completely different from when you purchase a roll container. It’s like getting a new car, it is not an entirely rational decision.”

In contrast to many other affluent business leaders who turn their eye to art, he did not launch Gumbostrand Konst & Form with the ambition of becoming a patron.

“I want to create a business which can carry its own weight; that’s the way to build something sustainable in the long run. People can fund unprofitable art projects for their own satisfaction, but then there is a large risk that it all falls apart when they pass it on to their children.”

Hartwall’s own art interest used to be limited to buying pieces for the home but, as he has become more involved, his appreciation has grown.

“The interest deepens the more you have contact with artists and listen to them talking about their work. It is fascinating to step into their world and attempt to grasp it.”

Finish artists Kristian Krokfors and Marie Rantanen are two favourites. But he has difficulty understanding total abstracts.

“I need some kind of motif.”

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Gumbostrand Konst & Form has been a big success so far, exceeding all expectations. The visitors come not only to look at and buy art and design items, but also to have lunch and enjoy the setting. In this way, people who would probably not have entered a traditional gallery are introduced to buying art.

When it comes to the issue of companies investing in art, Hartwall emphasises the need to make sure that everyone in the organisation sees the value. Otherwise you may end up with a lot of discontent about someone wasting the firm’s money.

“I think that companies, as far as possible, should invest in young artists. You support the work of budding talents while buying at a good price.”

At least two auctions will be held at Gumbostrand in the coming year, dedicated entirely to up-and-coming artists whose works have not been offered to the public before.

“I’ve always liked the energy at art auctions. I want to bring that electricity to the gallery,” he says.

For John Hartwall, in the end it all comes down to creating positive experiences for the customer.

“That has always been my passion in industry, to create added value.”

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