Do business like Christo

Photo: Benjamin Loyseau © 2021 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation

It was there for just over two weeks: an alien object at the centre of Paris’s busiest roundabout

The Arc de Triomphe was hidden beneath 25,000 square meters of silvery blue fabric. Held down with rope. Packaged like a gift.

L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped was Christo’s final project, revealed a year after the artist’s death. The culmination of 60 years of imagining, sketching, dreaming, scheming and planning.

Christo. Does that name mean anything to you?

It’s been attached to bizarre news stories. Bridges, parliament buildings and islands have been concealed by the artist’s wrappings. His preparatory drawings have sold for a millions at auction.

I don’t know about you, but I look at those achievements and think, “Wow – he took over the world.” I also think, “How?” How did a refugee from communist Bulgaria win enough influence to use national monuments as props in modern art installations?

Every creative could learn from the answers

Looking at Christo’s career is like taking a business class with four guiding principles:

  1. Start small
  2. Make money
  3. Enjoy the process
  4. Choose your partner wisely

Lesson one: Start small (with work that stands out)

It began with a shoe. Or was it a chair? It may have been a pram.

In the 1960s, Christo began wrapping objects. The work was spontaneous and playful. On the scale of magazines, bicycles and telephones. More likely to raise a smile than blow your mind.

But Christo had arrived.

In New York, his work grew as if in response to the city. Pieces became bigger, more complex and extended further into surrounding spaces.

Hit fast forward a whole bunch and he’d be tying up the parliamentary building in Berlin. 30 years of steady achievement took him from coating bottles in sand to cloaking the Reichstag.

Lesson two: Make money (not compromises)

“A garbage bag draped over one of our most glorious monuments.”

Not everyone was a fan of L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped. But even its worst critics couldn’t call it a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Christo’s estate paid for it all. And they did so without patrons or sponsors. The installation was funded through the sale of drawings, collages and models.

That’s how Christo raised money throughout his life. He’d plan installations by sketching over photographs and building scale models, then sell similar materials from previous projects to fund the latest provocative work.

Sales happened outside the traditional artist-gallery model. The CVJ Company (Christo’s initials) forged direct relationships with collectors and institutions. No middlemen. No dealers. No cash-grabs.

“When you accept outside money, someone wants to tell you what to do.”

Lesson three: Enjoy the process

“My projects are very literal, very real. Essentially, the work involves obtaining permissions, renting the land, and organising the logistics.”

That’s how Christo explained his creative output, shortly before his death. And, when you peek behind the gently swaying fabric of L’arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, you understand his emphasis on logistics.

The scale of the project is brought home by figures like 1.9 miles of red rope or 1,200 workers. But even these numbers don’t convey the complexity of the endeavour.

Fragile sculptures. Nesting falcons. Bureaucratic impediments. Covid-19. These were all obstacles that had to be knocked to one side before the silver cloth could drop to ground at the Place Charles de Gaulle road junction.

Small wonder that Christo could often wait decades until the political and cultural climate was favourable for his work. If you didn’t lean into the process, you’d lose your mind.

Lesson four: Choose your partner wisely

My favourite piece from Christo is a bouquet of flowers – wrapped, of course. It was displayed in the home he shared with his wife.

And now it’s time for the big reveal: Christo the artist isn’t one person. When the name signs off an artistic feat, it stands for a pair. Christo Vladimiroff Javacheff and his wife Jeanne-Claude.

There’s so much in their story to suggest they were meant to be together. They were born on the same day. They were born at the same hour. A boy in Bulgaria and a girl in Morrocco who would meet over a basic painting assignment.

Before Christo Javacheff started transforming objects, he supported himself in Paris painting portraits. Through that work, he encountered Jeanne-Claude who admitted:

“I knew nothing about art. Because Christo is an artist, I have become an artist. If Christo were a dentist, I would have become a dentist.”

But Jeanne-Claude proved the better operator. He was the creator; she was the organiser – the brains capable of bringing large-scale projects to fruition.

When Christo Javacheff had an idea, she’d negotiate with cattle farmers, heads of state and the general public to make it happen.

Learn from their legacy

A wavering silver arch appeared in Paris, only to disappear 16 days later.

Christo made iconic work. The pair won fame and fortune. They tore up the rule book in their industry. And that makes them a couple worth learning from.

Start small. Make money. Enjoy the process. Choose your partner wisely.

Go take over the world.

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