Posted on:Thursday 10th March, 2022
Rihanna in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
The first in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts
In developing the logo and identity of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) the objective has been to create a brand of unimpeachable integrity and a symbol of creativity and dynamism in the arts. This essay will discuss the thinking behind its development and use. R&V was established in response to a legacy gift of the property at No 8 Royal College Street in Camden, formerly occupied by the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine during their time together in London in 1873. These two poets therefore clearly formed an essential basis for the new organisation and its brand. Given the original importance of the property this was also very much in our minds when we commissioned a designer to help us develop the brand. Some of the proposals he came up with were recognisably based on the distinctive façade of the property. The trouble with these ‘house’ images was that they made the organisation look as though it was a housing association or a property developer. My Trustees and I were also clear from the start that R&V should not be ‘just a small house museum’ but that it should have a larger purpose as a vehicle for change in the arts. We wanted the logo to convey this larger mission which was focused on arts education, creating opportunities for up-and-coming artists and creatives, and developing cross-arts and international collaborations.
This was an important clarification of R&V’s founding purpose, and it came right at the start, in 2014, when it was first launched as a separate arts organisation and registered charity. As a result, the Trustees opted for a more abstract logo, consisting of two shapes based on the façade of the property at No 8 but also looking like coloured lozenges, in blue and red. One of these shapes is inverted so that the logo also looks a bit like two arrows, overlapping, one pointing up and one down. The colours were not accidental either. R&V was always envisaged as a Franco-British brand and the colours echo those of the French and British flags. Thus, we took the iconography of a house façade and translated it into a more abstract and colourful logo which embodied our wider creative mission and our international perspective. It is also possible to see the logo as symbolising the two poets on their parallel but divergent paths.
This decision had important consequences in the real world too, ensuring that R&V as an organisation never became too defined by No 8 but concentrated on the larger mission of becoming an arts organisation with clear artistic and charitable objectives separate from the property. We had reason to be thankful for this when, in 2020, our benefactor Michael Corby repudiated the legacy gift of the property and attempted to sell it, without reference to any public and charitable interest in the property. Refusing to be defined purely in terms of bricks and mortar suddenly seemed like an act of great wisdom and foresight.
There was also much discussion at the beginning about whether the names of the two poets themselves rendered the brand too narrow and niche. I had just spent 10 years running a poetry organisation in a field of the arts often (and in my view wrongly) regarded a niche. There was a fear that R&V was limiting itself to being a niche within a niche. The number of people interested in or knowledgeable about late 19th century French poetry was surely very small. Wouldn’t most people be turned off immediately by the name if we defined ourselves in this way? Wouldn’t a much vaguer and more generic name keep our programming options open and potentially attract a wider audience? It was a lively debate, but the Trustees were ultimately in agreement that the benefits of naming the organisation after the poets far outweighed any disadvantages. I think that it is worth my spending some time exploring the logic of this decision, which raises some interesting aspects of branding in the arts.
My own view is that the call for wider and more generic branding misunderstands the purpose of such an identity. It may be important to remain vague if your main objective is to sell soap powder or a range of household products, but in the arts and culture a brand is surely doing something more than this. It is telling a story about who and what you are, it is establishing a benchmark for artistic quality and aspiration, and it is creating a space in which it is possible to participate and make discoveries. The storytelling element is seminal. During my work in the arts over 25 years I have constantly needed to revert to the foundation stories of my own organisations. Certain incidents, experiences or ideas have become part of a shared narrative which both explains the organisation and serves to hold it together, and which establishes a wider community of support around it. An organisation without such founding stories feels lacking in authenticity and a genuine sense of purpose. I have also observed the same need for foundation stories at other arts organisation with which I have been closely associated, whether as a Board member or a partner. The idealism associated with an arts brand and its mission coalesce around its foundational stories. On this basis R&V has one of the strongest stories of all, a tale of two badly behaved French poets and their tempestuous life together, and of the creativity and the many artists who they inspired. It is a story constantly alluded to, and which is returned to again and again in the media and in literature. The story is both fun to relate and clearly sets out R&V’s stall as an organisation using the inspiration of the poets as the starting point for a raft of new artistic projects and commissions.
Far from being narrow or niche, it rapidly became clear that the R&V brand was potentially very broad indeed, connecting us with a worldwide community of supporters and a much bigger conversation about creativity and the role of the arts in society. Interest in the poets began as early as the 1890s and has continued to be intense ever since. One does not have to look very far for references to Rimbaud or Verlaine in the works of writers, artists, poets and musicians. Rimbaud is mentioned in song lyrics by (amongst others) Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Patti Smith. One of Verlaine’s poems was broadcast by the BBC in June 1944 as the signal to the French Resistance that D-Day had started. This tide of influence is so wide that it embraces nearly every country in the world. We may have originally envisaged R&V’s main international connection as being with France, but this seriously underestimated the fascination with the poets that exists all over the world, from Romania to Lithuania, from Latin America to Japan. In fact, the names of the poets are occasionally used in popular culture as a sort of shorthand for cultural sophistication. To take just one surprising example, the character played by Rihanna in the Hollywood Sci-Fi film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) seeks to impress the hero by saying that she can recite the works of both Rimbaud and Verlaine. Speaking to a brand specialist in 2018 he agreed with me that this groundswell of awareness potentially makes the R&V brand of much wider international appeal.
This is perhaps why the R&V brand clearly functions well as identifying a place for those curious about the arts. There is a lot of know-how out there about branding, some of it surely pure hokum. However, it is clear that some brands successfully create an aura of rarity. Their use of unusual names or spellings are immediately taken as indicating that they are aimed at discerning and sophisticated consumers. The implication is that their products are only for those ‘in the know’, that they are exclusive and therefore special. We are also familiar with so-called anti-brands which seek to subvert a slick corporate look in order to convey a punk or rough-edged authenticity. Many of these techniques are deployed more or less cynically to sell fashion, perfumes or music. In this context, R&V has every right to present itself as the real thing. Its brand offers a world of authentic possibilities to the artistically curious, an offer which genuinely embodies a punk or counter-cultural aesthetic. There is thus a clear theoretical basis for two edgy French poets providing the label and identity for an organisation providing a gateway to the arts and culture. The R&V brand is also unique in the way that is combines different demographics and audience segments. Normally a brand cannot have it all ways. It needs to have a clear focus on (say) high-end luxury consumers, middlebrow homeowners, or young urban eclectics. R&V is unusual in that it is capable of communicating simultaneously a message of high quality in the arts with a much more punk aesthetic. As a badge of international sophistication it could be used as an imprimatur on a quality wine label or an arts publication (the use of the R&V brand has been explored in both these connections, with some success). Obviously, an arts brand that is open-ended and multifaceted is exactly what is needed to attract new audiences to the arts.
It is, of course, necessary to be fiercely protective of a brand like R&V. The organisation’s reputation for integrity is its most valuable asset and so it is essential that it should not be associated with content or projects, partners or sponsors, which are of poor quality or which might bring the organisation into disrepute. R&V has always been open to working in partnership, including with commercial sponsors, but my Trustees and I have also always been mindful of the reputational risks, and have thought very hard about our associations. Some arts organisations engage in a rather unedifying battle of the brands, keen to present joint projects as their own output. R&V has always been very happy to share brand billing with other reputable brands. In fact nearly all of its activities are based on partnerships and creative collaborations with other organisations. My own view is that this collaborative approach to branding is advantageous to all those involved, and I am very proud of our partners (which have included amazing organisations like National Opera Studio, London College of Fashion and LGBT Capital).
The R&V brand has helped to determine the development of the organisation. A good brand needs to be capacious and inclusive and R&V has certainly fulfilled this function. It has effortlessly accommodated everything from high-end classical chamber music (Verlaine poems have been set to music by many of the greatest French composers) to Rock music (explored through R&V’s Rock for Rimbaud initiative), from fine art to Fashion design concepts, from literary poetry to graphic novels (the Nick Hays novel The Drunken Sailor was originally commissioned by R&V). The brand has also allowed R&V to develop an important strand promoting LGBTQ tolerance and inclusion and to engage in wider advocacy for the arts (including the translation of texts by the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka). Despite all this diversity of content the identity of R&V as a brand has not been diluted. In fact, I believe that it has been strengthened and that these collaborations have helped it grow to maturity as an organisation. Perhaps all brands need to be ‘lived’ so they can establish their potential and their core values? In R&V’s case creativity and openness have remained central to our being.
As a new organisation in 2014 R&V was just finding its feet and exploring what its content should be. Clearly there is a finite demand for events and storytelling about two poets alone. There was a fear at the start that the brand might not be wide enough to encompass a larger range of content, and a diversity of projects and commissions. In practice the opposite has been the case. The R&V brand has opened a succession of doors to great content across many different art forms. This has, in turn, opened doors to many new and related stories such as the influence of Rimbaud and Verlaine on artists as varied as Berthold Brecht and Oscar Wilde, Sergei Eisenstein, Marc Bolan and Renée Vivienne. To date there has been no sign of an end to these avenues of discovery. And yet always we have been able to return to the central characters of the poets as the touchstone of our identity, two badly behaved poets exploring the world through the arts and a spirit of adventure, whether together or apart.
A brand does not in and of itself impart life or integrity to an organisation. But a strong arts brand can be expansive and dynamic and can encompass a world of creative curiosity. The key, for me, lies in the stories that you tell and the values you embody. If you get these things right, as I believe we have done with R&V, your influence and your reach can be greatly extended, and you can attract a loyal and committed community of support.