|THE ART OF CORPORATE SPONSORSHIP
Does corporate sponsorship undermine the integrity of cultural exhibits?
February 6, 1998
in this forum:
Have you experienced situations which explain the concern over corporate sponsorship? Do corporations fund more than mainstream art? Why shouldn't art be subject to market forces? Doesn't government funding also come with restrictions and requirements as well? What examples have you experienced or heard of that justify the concern over corporate sponsorship?
Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the National Association of Artists' Organizations, responds:For many of NAAO (National Association of Artists' Organizations) organizations who are the presenters of new and experimental art works, our concern with corporate giving lies with the narrow window of artistic projects they choose to support. Corporate giving is linked to their marketing concerns. When one examines the types of art works and art organizations that receive funding, you rarely find support for art practices that are about artistic explorations, inquiries. Corporate sponsorship primarily supports artistic illustrations and rarely artistic inquiries.
Artistic illustration are those creations that illustrate the cultural richness of our humanity, for example the paintings of Renoir, or Warhol; the plays of Shakespeare or Neil Simon; the cultural artifacts and heritage of Mexico, Russia, Japan; the dance tradition of Ireland or historical Western forms like ballet. These art expressions have proven over time to have cultural value and an audience which can be marketed to.
Corporate sponsorship's concern for the artist who is exploring, inquiring into the representation of blue in painting; or the meaning of community; or the history or racism in America; or optics and perspective, is not a priority for them. These artistic inquiries can not produce the large markets and publicity that corporate sponsors seek. The concern for many in the contemporary art world is, in the face of these corporate givens, how does one make the case for support of our nation's artists and their inquiries. That the illustrations of culture, its arts centers, museums, concert halls are of value because they present art, yet how do we bring value to the makers of the arts and their creations, which is eventually the art presented in these institutions. How does corporate sponsorship work beyond audience development and marketing, and support artists in their inquires, is a question they must address.
Ben Cameron, manager of community relations for Target Stores, responds:
I am unaware of any specific instances of concerns over corporate arts sponsorships, beyond the general questions one often receives about why a corporation bothers to fund the arts at all. Certainly, there have been controversies around the government's role in arts funding, and there is equally a drive in certain quarters to protest corporate policies that run afoul of personally held values or beliefs, e.g. the Southern Baptist Convention call for a boycott of Disney as a result of their domestic partner benefits policy. These have not, however, extended to the realm of corporate arts sponsorship, to the best of my knowledge.
Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Arts Center responds:
In February of 1997, a nonpartisan Presidential committee released a report which warned that cuts in public, private, and corporate spending for the arts and humanities are undermining cultural and educational institutions in this country. The report asserted that increases in corporate giving to the arts during the past two years mask a long-term decline in corporate contributions as measured as a percent of pre-tax profits. In fact, the report pointed out that corporate giving has been steadily diminishing since 1986.
There are even some problematic trends in the Twin Cities, where a program begun 22 years ago by the Dayton Hudson Corporation encourages corporations to donate at least 5 percent of their pre-tax profits to charities. (147 companies do give 5 percent and another 90 give 2 percent of their pre-tax profits.) As corporate leadership has moved from the founders to a new generation, funding priorities have shifted in some cases away from the arts. While the Walker Art Center enjoys tremendous local support -- contributions for unrestricted annual support have increased 21 percent from 1990 -- the number of gifts during the same period has decreased from 292 to 230. Simply put, we're not seeing growth in the pool of donors.
We're also seeing more cause-related funding initiatives rather than pure philanthropic partnerships in which the outcomes are not as easily measurable. This is a real shift in orientation. Since sponsorship of an exhibition can provide greater visibility than annual support, we're working hard to provide our long-term, annual donors with the recognition they deserve. But this shift probably will influence the types of scholarship and programs which may find an audience. (Unrestricted support allows the museum to take artistic risks that marketing departments in corporations are unlikely to sponsor.) There are many contributions to the field -- research into lesser known artists or movements, new work of a challenging nature, innovative commissions, for example -- which are increasingly difficult to fund.
Gary O. Larson, freelance writer, responds:
However useful the Smithsonian's travails may be as a conversation starter, I really don't think the examples cited above (concerning a lecture series on Israeli history and an exhibition on the building of the Alaska pipeline) are all that typical. It's always tempting, admittedly, to look for the "smoking guns" of corporate philanthropy, the clear instances of editorial interference and aesthetic control that leaves a cash-strapped Institution A utterly beholden to Corporation B, which is determined to roll over artistic directors in the same way that it demolishes the competition. And surely there are examples of corporations trying to buy some favorable publicity and behaving a little heavy-handedly in the process. But the reality is that the vast majority of company-supported arts events are so far removed from a corporation's much more pedestrian everyday concerns as to be all but irrelevant. If FedEx underwrites a revival of Stephen Paulus's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," it won't be out of some misguided desire to besmirch the reputation of the U.S. Postal Service. It's because they've already captured the Monday Night Football crowd, and now they're going after some of the tonier zip codes.
This is not to suggest, however, that corporate dollars are influence-free. At the risk of biting the hand that feeds us (although, come to think of it, I haven't been offered any food yet), public broadcasting presents the clearest instance of the true impact of corporate philanthropy, which is more complicated than we're often led to suspect. Some observers, it is true, continue to speak darkly about a certain multinational conglomerate ("the supermarket to the world") paying what amounts to hush money to a certain PBS news program, but the equation is not nearly as simple as that.
Sociologist William Hoynes, who has looked closely at the influence of corporate sponsorship on public broadcasting, puts it best. "The impact of corporate underwriting is much more subtle than direct intervention," he writes. "The most significant impact of underwriting is that corporate dollars can often be the key variable that determines whether a program will make it on the air. That is, when all other things are equal, the program proposal with access to corporate dollars is more likely to get produced and broadcast. And because controversial programs rarely, if ever, have access to major corporate underwriting dollars, the inevitable result is a narrowing of the range of discourse on public television."
The same thing might be said of corporate support of the arts more generally, as corporate dollars chase the larger, safer, higher profile cultural spectacles that major institutions are much more likely to accommodate than smaller ones (just as WGBH, WNET, and WETA are much more likely to produce cultural programming for PBS than smaller, community-based stations). Again, quoting Hoynes: "Corporate dollars can give programs life and get them on the air; they do not necessarily influence the specific content of particular programs, but they are an important determinant of what viewers ultimately have access to. . . . Critics who argue that PBS is simply controlled by corporations are missing the more subtle corporate influence that occurs during the idea formation, proposal preparation, and fundraising stages. The fact is that corporate underwriters provide resources for the production and distribution of only a narrow range of programs."
Our "concern over corporate sponsorship," in other words, should be based not on the specter of censorship and control, but rather on the "narrowing of the range of discourse" that places certain kinds of art and arts organizations at further risk in an already difficult funding climate. But, as I attempt to suggest in my answer to the question about "market forces" below, the "problem" of corporate support is not so much the parochialism of the business patron, which by now is predictable. The problem is rather in the response of the other parts of the philanthropic community (namely foundations and government agencies), which have the opportunity to be much more innovative and flexible in their funding policies, but which too often prove to be as hide-bound and predictable as their corporate colleagues.
Dr. Evan Maurer, director and CEO of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, responds:
In my 30 years of experience working in American art museums I have not been involved in any projects that would justify concern over corporate sponsorship in terms of undue pressure to move in a certain direction or to edit or censor work exhibited.
Malcolm Richardson, deputy director of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, responds:
I don't think I have any examples to contribute to this question.