Red Bull’s CEO Loves Breitbart. Here’s Why the Art World Should Care.
The Austrian billionaire is considered a pioneer of marketing through branded content.
Red Bull’s CEO Dietrich Mateschitz has earned a reputation as a marketing genius who has managed to do the impossible: make cultural content sponsored by a multi-billion-dollar corporation cool. He has used the energy drink’s name to underwrite a global, highly influential electronic music platform, an exhibition space in New York, and a residency program in Detroit. But participants in the company’s forward-thinking cultural projects may be surprised to learn about the CEO’s latest initiative: a soon-to-be-launched populist German-language media venture that has already been compared to the ultra-right-wing US outlet Breitbart.
Mateschitz has made no secret of his reactionary political views: He’s backing the Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, the young leader of the right-wing populist arm of the conservative People’s Party. But earlier this month, he harshly criticized Germany and Austria’s policies towards refugees in a rare interview with the regional Austrian paper Kleine Zeitung on April 8. The reclusive billionaire also expressed his support for Donald Trump and announced plans for his new media venture, Näher an die Wahrheit (Closer to the Truth), an initiative that he described as a “research platform” with a mission to “tell the truth.”
It is not yet clear what the platform’s content would look like, but the controversial interview—which has not been widely reported in English, except for one article, unsurprisingly, on Breitbart—has already divided public opinion in Austria. Some readers urged the 72-year-old Austrian, who is estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $15.2 billion, to get into politics. Others said his aspirations are dangerous and likened his proposed platform to Steve Bannon’s former outlet.
The comparison isn’t too far fetched: In the interview, Mateschitz condemned the political correctness of the “intellectual elites” and claimed that the Austrian government wanted the public to be “scared and uncritical.” “I fundamentally oppose being told what to think, even if one immediately makes oneself suspicious in all directions: in America you’re branded a communist, in Europe as a conspiracy theorist or a right-wing populist,” he said.
He spoke of the government’s “blindness” regarding the refugees, referring to the crisis as a “wave of immigration” into Europe, claiming that “it was clear from the start that most of the people weren’t refugees, at least not according to the definition of the term in the Geneva Conventions.” He also expressed concerns about the “public servants in Brussels [referring to the European Union] who say that countries with homogeneous cultures should vanish from the face of the earth.”
What does this have to do with art?
Most of Red Bull’s sponsorship activities focus on sports—including a Formula 1 racing team, soccer clubs, and extreme-sports events—but the company also funds successful programs in the fields of art and music. Mateschitz is revered as a marketing pioneer who has created corporate-branded content that both its core costumer base and the wider public might want to consume. The German newspaper Handelsblatt described Mateschitz as a CEO who “built up a media empire to advertise the Red Bull energy drink.”
The company’s most famous project outside of sports is the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA), which is based in Cologne. Founded in 1998, RBMA has established itself as a leading platform in the world of electronic music and culture. Its activities include festival partnerships, an online magazine and radio station, club nights, and lectures by influential musicians, DJs, and performers. Ironically, RBMA is firmly liberal and left-leaning. The academy’s initiatives, including long-form oral histories, have influenced the politics of dance music today and helped canonize the genre’s black and queer origins.
Meanwhile, in New York, Red Bull runs Red Bull Arts, a two-floor, 12,000-square-foot exhibition space in Chelsea described on their website as an “experimental, non-commercial arts space.” Over the past three years, an impressive roster of artists have shown there, including Bjarne Melgaard, Mel Chin, and Robert Gober. A number of these artists are outspokenly liberal and politically active, including Deborah Kass, who created a print of a scowling Donald Trump to raise money for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
So far, Näher an die Wahrheit, which has been recruiting since April 1, has a few notable members in its founding team, including Niko Alm, a member of the neo-liberal NEO party who famously protested the allowance of religious headgear in government-issued ID cards by registering as a “Pastafarian” for his Austrian driver’s license.
Mateschitz has made a point of stating that the media platform will be financed by his private foundation, Quo Vadis Veritas, and will operate independently of both Red Bull and his own TV station, Servus TV. A spokesperson from Red Bull reiterated the separation between Mateschitz’s new platform and the company in a statement to artnet News.
Still, the projects might be more intertwined than it seems. As Der Standard reports, the foundation’s only benefactors are listed in its commercial register as Mateschitz and Servus Medien GmbH, which is run by the Red Bull Media House, a subsidiary of Red Bull.
Cashing in on creativity
Mateschitz’s polarizing comments come at a time when corporate sponsorship of art has begun to draw increased scrutiny, particularly in Europe. Activists have protested oil companies’ support of museums including the Louvre, Tate, and the British Museum. (Tate ended its sponsorship deal with BP last year.) A representative from Red Bull Arts did not reply to a request for comment from artnet News.
Last year, Red Bull produced six billion cans of its energy drink and reported an annual revenue of €6 billion. Creativity remains at the heart of the brand. When asked in the Kleine interview about the company’s goals for further growth, Mateschitz said the only way to maximize profits is to maximize “creativity, innovation, intelligence. It’s only through maximizing all of the things that are ingenious, high quality, creative, and meaningful that one arrives at profit.”
Michael Fleischhacker, Editor-In-Chief of Näher an die Wahrheit, replied to artnet News a week after our initial request for comment, following the publication of the article, with this statement:
Over the past week, a non-profit foundation – Quo Vadis Veritas – was established with the purpose of launching an independent multimedia investigative journalism platform. The platform and its employees will focus on research to only offer high quality journalism. This is to enable solid grounds for rational, well-informed debate. As work on this project only began in April 2017, the organizational structure, range of topics, design and features of the platform have not yet been finalized.
Speculation that Quo Vadis Veritas will launch an ideologically motivated platform on behalf of Dietrich Mateschitz is simply wrong.
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