I am just reflecting on the culmination of a fascinating project I have been working on for WWF.
I initially started working as Project Manager with them back in January 2018 and wanted to share some of the highlights of this amazing fundraising campaign with you.
WWF had previously worked with curators 'Artwise' on two projects called 'Pandamonium' which featured collaborations with contemporary artists to create innovative artworks out of old panda collection boxes which raised significant awareness for the charity through exposure in Selfridges in Oxford Street. This was followed by 'Pandamonium 2' in 2012 where artists were tasked with creating wearable sculpture or performance art.
'Tomorrow's Tigers' was an altogether more ambitious project. Not only was there an expectation of generating a similar level of exposure for WWF, but a fundraising target of raising £1million for tiger conservation work was set. In 2010, the last Chinese Year of the Tiger, WWF made a promise:
WWF, tiger range nations, the World Bank and other partners committed to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Chinese ‘Year of the Tiger’. Since the start of the 20th century we’ve lost over 95% of wild tigers. Today there are only 3,900 individuals left. Due to the concerted efforts of governments, WWF, partner organisations, and communities since the International Tiger Summit in 2010, for the first time in conservation history, wild tiger numbers are increasing.
Artwise had embraced the the concept of increasing the numbers of this majestic animal and took their inspiration for an art led campaign from an exhibition that took place at the Hayward Gallery in 1988 called 'The Tiger Rugs of Tibet'. Curated by Mimi Lipton, this showcased a collection of very rare antique rugs. Like the wild tiger, the original Tibetan Tiger Rugs are very rare. Thought to be owned by the
Tibetan elite and considered a prize possession, when the 1988 exhibition was staged, there were only around 200 samples known about. Traditionally the Tiger Rugs were made as gifts for Lamas in their monasteries and were used with Tantric Meditation. The tiger skin motif was thought to protect the person during meditation. Artwise planned to approach 10 contemporary artists to take their inspiration from these rugs to create their own interpretations which would then be realised by specialist rug makers Christopher Farr. These rugs were to be handmade by craftspeople in India to produce a limited edition of 10 of each design. Starting prices were anticipated to be around £10,000.
Building the Team and the Brand
The first phase was to pull together the project team to support Artwise from WWF. This included PR and Comms, Brand, Digital, and of course key people from the fundraising team, in this case led by Philanthropy/Major Donors and including members of the Corporate fundraising team. The contemporary art world is very specialised, and to crack the PR around this was going to be key.
The exhibition date at Sotheby’s was January 2019 and so working back from this we decided to have a launch event in September 2018 to try and engage with key people in the art world as well as potential philanthropists and influencers. WWF supporter Lily Cole came on board to lend her voice to the project and agreed to attend the launch at Sotheby’s.
The project had initially been referred to internally with a working name of ‘Tiger Rugs’ but we were very aware that this would not work with an external audience as it conjured up images of tiger skin rugs, obviously NOT something WWF wanted! So the title ‘Tomorrow’s Tigers’ was decided as a fitting name as saving this species is intrinsic to securing the future of our planet. It needed to have its own identity which would not only sit within the WWF brand, but speak to a contemporary art audience. Working with designers is something which I have always enjoyed doing, echoing back to my art and design background. WWF’s agency, Clean Canvas were great to work with and ever patient as we considered their various options. It’s never easy when there are so many stakeholders involved, but we were really happy with the clean logo they came up with which had a subtle reference to tiger claw marks.
Whilst this background work was going on, the really exciting stuff was happening. Artwise confirmed that they had secured support from the ten artists. We were highly excited that the first artist to come on board was Anish Kapoor! They had in fact already received the artwork designs from Anish Kapoor, Rose Wylie and Gary Hume. It was fascinating to see how they had all come up with very different interpretations, and we were excited to see how Christopher Farr executed them into the rug production.
The final confirmed artists were:
Francesco Clemente, Bernard Frize, Gary Hume, Reena Saini Kallat, Anish Kapoor, Maya Lin, Harland Miller, Raqib Shaw, Kiki Smith and Rose Wylie.
The original rugs had of course been woven in Tibet, but this was something that was no longer viable, and so Christopher Farr was working with a group of highly skilled craftspeople in North India who would be handweaving these designs. WWF had to of course have sight of all of their documentation on the processes and materials used to know that they were responsible and sustainable in their production methods.
This was a very unique project for many of these artists, as they were very closely involved in the whole process. Christopher Farr would send a small sample of the rug to each artist for sign off before the final one was begun.
The first samples began to arrive from India in late August just in time for our launch breakfast event at Sotheby's on 11th September. Here guests were given unique access to view some of the initial designs, and to touch and feel samples of the samples of the rugs by Gary Hume, Raqib Shaw and Kiki Smith. Heather Sohl, Tiger Trade Leader at WWF explained how tiger numbers had been in rapid decline, and talked through the ambition of the Tx2 project to double the number of tigers in the wild.
Christopher Farr then talked through the incredibly skilled processes used by their craftspeople and how each rug was realised in a different way. The Raqib Shaw rug, pictured in the middle below, would apparently involve around 1 million hand tied knots when completed.
The First Rugs
It was fascinating to work with Artwise and be party to the work that was going on between them, the artists and the production by Christopher Farr in India. It is unusual for artists who are giving their work to a charity project to be so heavily involved in this way. For many of them, though, this was a new medium for them to create their work in and so their was a lot of dialogue and sampling back and forth. In October the first rugs arrived with Artwise and I was excited to be able to see them up close! The Kiki Smith, Rose Wylie and Gary Hume rugs were a great example of how differently they had all been executed. The Smith was incredibly tightly knotted with very fine detail, whereas the Wylie was a lot looser. Gary Hume's rug was a real treat - hand woven in hand dyed wool and silk, it had a different look from each angle it was viewed from.
The Collateral and Promotion
By November we starting to pull together the assets we had to continue to push out stories to the press. This included some great imagery of some of the artists with their rugs including Gary Hume and Raqib Shaw (and his wonderful pet dog!)
At the same time we were collating imagery and editorial content for the catalogue which Sotheby's were kindly producing for us. This was running alongside briefing our web designer as we received imagery back from the photographer of the finished rugs. We were incredibly up against it in terms of deadlines as we approached Christmas, and four of the rugs were still being finished in India. Working on a project which is being fulfilled in another continent comes with it's own challenges. Unusually cold weather meant that the craftspeople were unable to work for certain periods of time, and along with this, we had to factor in the delivery of the rugs into London. As the exhibition preview date of 28th January approached, Christopher Farr photographed the final rugs as soon as they were completed in India before they were shipped so that we could make the catalogue deadline, and ensure we had content for the website.
Finally, in mid January, the website was ready to launch, see the screengrab below, or even better, have a look at the real thing here . It was so exciting to see this come together as we pushed it out to supporters and waited for the first glimmers of interest. At the same time, WWF launched a 'Tiger Edit' of affordable products in their main online shop which included some specially commissioned pieces by illustrator Ollie Terry, including this lovely tote bag below. Thankfully we just made the catalogue deadline with the arrival of the Anish Kapoor rug from India - which was well worth the wait!
Finally as the weekend of 26th January approached we were all set for the exhibition to come together. Artwise delivered the rugs to Sotheby's as we received confirmation that the first rug had actually been sold online - we were so excited!
But more exciting was the big preview day when I first walked into Sotheby's to see these wonderful pieces proudly hanging alongside their original antique counterparts in the St George Street Gallery.
Wow, they looked amazing!
A press call had taken place first thing and we were delighted with the coverage this project was receiving, see some of the highlights below including BBC online, FT How to Spend It, The Times, The Telegraph and even as far afield as the New York Times.
Now was the moment of truth....We had over 200 acceptances for the Preview of the exhibition which included art collectors, gallery owners, WWF supporters and philanthropists. We had initially anticipated the rugs being priced at around £10,000, but in fact the average ones were priced at around £15,000, with some of the more detailed ones including the Raqib Shaw, Anish Kapoor and Harland Miller coming in at £25,000.
The Preview had a real buzz about it and two rugs were sold on the night to add to the now two pieces which had been bought online. This was a very new world to WWF, but we were advised by the experts Artwise, that there had been lots of interest and that naturally people would need to think about a purchase of this size. During the exhibition week we delivered two engagement events - one to some Patrons of the RA, featuring talks from Artwise and Christopher Farr, and another aimed at WWF supporters where tiger expert Heather Sohl spoke passionately about the plight of the tiger.
Our aim during this week was to sell around eight rugs - we thought this would be a decent kick start to the campaign which we hoped would then tour and take us into the Year of the Tiger in 2022 and culmination of the £1million project.
Can you imagine our delight to be able to announce that at the culmination of this week we had raised over £600,000 in rug sales! This bodes really well for the future of the project and plans are already in place to tour the exhibition internationally, so watch this space.
The success of projects like this is what really makes me enjoy the work I do. I love to work on campaigns where we exceed expectations. A nice bonus to this was to be able to work with such a great group of people, and it was a lovely surprise when the team at WWF presented me with my own wee tiger rug and thank you card to show their appreciation, awww. So it is onwards and upwards for Tomorrow's Tigers project and I hope to be able to update you on the next steps as it goes global!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.