BIER TODAY, GONE; TOMORROW

What have concrete houses and pickled sheep to do with a German beer? Without Anthony Fawcett and Beck's, nothing. Geraldine Norman on conceptual art's keenest sponsors
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The Independent Culture
ONE WAY of telling that an art show is really hip is the Beck's Bier logo on the private view card. This German beer, first introduced into Britain in 1985, is now selling over 200 million bottles a year as a result of a narrowly focused arts sponsorship campaign. For 10 years Beck's money - and beer - have been poured into art exhibitions, music and theatre at the cutting edge of the avant garde. The company's criterion for sponsoring an event is that everyone is likely to be talking about it tomorrow. Any art sponsored by Beck's is a sure bet for a short-term investment.

The person who selects the shows to be backed - and gets it uncannily right - is Anthony Fawcett, a slight, spectacled art groupie who is probably pushing 50 - he does not release his date of birth to the press. He has succeeded in creating a new link between art and commerce. The task he was presented with in 1985 was to take a beer, unknown to British drinkers, and turn it into the "in" hooch of "young opinion formers". Faw-cett, who had previously worked as an art critic, conceived the idea of corporate sponsorship for artists whose convention-busting creations were certain to get splashed across the papers.

Thus, Beck's Bier was co-sponsor of Rachel Whiteread's "House", the plaster cast of the inside of a London terrace house which was erected in the East End in 1993 to a volley of mixed abuse and praise from the press, then bulldozed to a second volley. And the company has repeatedly backed Damien Hirst, famous for his pickled cows and sharks. They provided beer for his May 1995 exhibition at the White Cube gallery which featured a case of surgical instruments called "Still"; the gallery parked a van dispensing Beck's in the street. The evening turned into a spontaneous "event", with performance artists. Some 400 bottles were consumed. Beck's also provided drinks for the opening of the recent Clay Ketter show at the White Cube.

Beck's first major sponsorship was Gilbert and George's show of photo pieces at the Hayward in 1987. In 1989 it backed the liner-sized paper boat that George Wylie launched on the Clyde and sailed down the Thames through London, and went conceptual when Richard Long laid out stone circles at the Hayward in 1991 and adopted Euro-chic by backing Rebecca Horn's sculpture machines at the Tate and Serpentine in 1994.

Almost more important than backing major exhibitions is the provision of beer to celebrate gallery openings. It sets the tone of trendy events both in London and the provinces. While Duke St, St James's, one of the smartest streets in London, received the overflow of young swingers clutching bottles of bier from Jay Jopling's Damien Hirst show at White Cube - Jopling's gallery is a watchword for big talent - you bump into the same bottles at Interim in the back streets of Hackney, the Fruitmarket gal-lery in Edinburgh and the Arnolfini in Bristol. The distinctive shape of the bottle, the green glass and the labels have almost become symbolic of the sharp new art of the Nineties.

Fawcett has had two brainwaves over reinforcing this identification. One is by advising sponsored exhibitions on the back of the bottles retailed throughout Britain in ordinary pubs and bars during their run. The exhibition label may go on the back of several million bottles - an amazing service to the artist concerned. Then there are the limited edition bottles with labels commissioned from leading artists. Fawcett pinched the idea from Chateau Lafitte claret bottles. The first label was designed by Gilbert and George in 1987 and was attached to 2,000 bottles - all of which were given away rather than sold. They have now become "collectables", changing hands at up to pounds 500 a time.

The voyage of George Wylie's paper boat was celebrated with a label to his design in 1989, to be followed by Bruce McLean in 1990, two Richard Longs in 1991, Tim Head in 1992, Rachel Whiteread's "House" in 1993, and a spot painting by Damien Hirst to celebrate 10 years of Beck's Bier sponsorship in 1995 - the spot painting was also turned into a T-shirt. The fact that none of these limited edition products are available for sale - they are given away to trendsetters - adds to their rarity value and appeal as collectors' items. A secondary industry has thus been created which also helps advertise Beck's.

Fawcett's phenomenal success with Beck's has got other corporations lining up for his services. The most visible of his new clients is Haagen-Dazs ice-cream, which backed the opening of the new contemporary art space at the Tate last year, Art Now. The first show was devoted to the American artist Matthew Barney who makes videos that turn sports equipment into fetish items - in one he climbs round the ceiling of a gallery naked but for a mountaineering harness. Haagen-Dazs also backed the 1994 show that Damien Hirst created at the Serpentine Gallery, "Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away..." Fawcett is now in a position to provide backers for almost any exhibition or performance that catches his imagination. His other clients include Mont Blanc pens, BP, Texaco and Saatchi and Saatchi. It backs theatre, music and dance besides the visual arts, notably the Theatre de Complicite and Michael Clark's experimental dance company.

Fawcett comes from Abingdon, near Ox-ford. A desire to be "part of what's happening" has, he says, been his consuming motivation since he was a schoolboy there in the Sixties. "The first thing I ever wrote was about kinetic art for Boy's Own when I was 14 or 15," he told me. He graduated to the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford, wrote art criticism for the university magazine Isis and became an art critic for Vogue at 19.

Then came a watershed. He was helping to organise an exhibition at Coventry Cathedral in 1968 when he met John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The couple decided to make a joint work for the exhibition, then Fawcett helped John publish his first lithographs and, at the age of 20, he found himself the Lennons' full-time advisor and assistant. He worked with them for two years. "It gave me an idea of how the press and media work," he says, "and the power of its publicity machine."

Fawcett spent most of the 1970s in America writing about music - he wrote the first biography of Lennon and a book on the folk and rock scene in California. In the early 1980s he returned to Britain and worked as an art critic for the Face, then teamed up with Olympus Cameras, which had a gallery off Hanover Square, and got to know its advertising agency, CDP. It was CDP who came to him in 1984 with the idea of working for Beck's. "They said 'Come in and give some advice about a beer.' I said: 'Whatever can I do with beer?' " The rest is history. 8

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