|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? Do any corporations fund anything other than mainstream art?
Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the National Association of Artists' Organizations, responds:Rarely.
Ben Cameron, manager of community relations for Target Stores, responds:
"Mainstream" in this context is a tricky descriptor. Does the writer mean "aesthetically conservative?" The work of Elizabeth Streb and Merce Cunnighman in dance, of the Wooster Group in theater, of Tan Dun in opera, for example, all push the boundaries of traditional art forms and have all received corporate support. Does the writer mean "politically center of the road?" ANGELS IN AMERICA productions in theater, for example, also have been supported by corporate America. Does the writer mean "culturally mainstream, i.e. essentially white Euro-centric?" There has been an explosion of support for institutions and artists of color in the past decade.
What is probably true is that corporations of late have moved towards aligning their corporate objectives with their giving programs. The more a corporation prizes experimentation, innovation and creativity or the more it seeks to address a significantly younger, emerging generation of hip consumers, the more likely it is to embrace the non-mainstream in its corporate giving efforts or in its own art collection--- the purchase and commissioning of which is yet another way that corporations support the work of artists.
Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Arts Center responds:
Given the nature of our programs, our mission, and our success in obtaining corporate sponsorships, I'd have to answer yes. But often it's dependent upon a personal relationship between the corporation and the institution. If the institution has a stellar reputation, it's easier for a corporation to buy into supporting the "brand" in funding a particular project with less than mainstream appeal. But it's hard to raise this kind of funding cold or blind.
Gary O. Larson, freelance writer, responds:
There are plenty of example of companies sponsoring art that falls outside the mainstream, from purely local organizations like Project Row Houses in Houston (http://www.neosoft.com/~prh/), to national programs like the Digital Storytelling Festival (http//www.dstory.com/index.html), to Philip Morris's well-chronicled trysts with the avant-garde. But these tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule. First, consider these ball-park figures: corporate support of the arts and culture (according to the Conference Board) reached an estimated $850 million in 1996, or about four times what the NEH and NEA spend every year. Foundation giving is significantly larger still, at over $1 billion annually. Giving to the arts by individuals, however, easily tops all three categories (by a four-to-one margin, in fact), bringing the total figure for giving to the arts and culture to nearly $11 billion annually. Corporate arts support, in other words, represents a cheesecake slice (roughly 8 percent) of the arts-philanthropy pie, while the NEH and NEA between them represent a wafer-thin 2 percent of the total. Again, like most cultural statistics, these are ball-park figures, but they at least suggest two things: (1) whether we like it or not, the Dow Jones Average will have a far greater impact on the nonprofit American culture this year than the National Council on the Arts; and (2) we won't really know very much about the details of that impact in any case. It's easy, in other words, to generalize about the Big Numbers--expressing satisfaction (or envy) over the five New York arts institutions that are in the midst of capital campaigns destined to raise upwards of $1 billion, much of it from corporate coffers. But the "little numbers"--the crucial details of the arts economy--continue to elude us. How, for example, do we measure the health of dance in America? And what are foundations and corporate funders doing to address these particular needs? Is the practicing poet, or pianist, or painter better off today than 30 years ago? With the near-total elimination of federal support for individual artists, what funding options remain? Corporate funders, admittedly, can do little in this regard, but they could assist in getting artists' goods to market, and in building audiences for their work. Such patrons tend, however, to be otherwise engaged, focusing largely on the 2 percent of all arts organizations (with budgets in excess of $5 million) that attract 55 percent of all contributed income in the arts. Most of the remaining 98 percent of arts organizations simply don't show up on the radar screens of our corporate benefactors, and we should not lose sight of that sobering fact--or of those organizations.
Dr. Evan Maurer, director and CEO of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, responds:
Over the years I have found that corporations in all parts of the country have been willing put their financial support behind many programs and projects that would not be defined as "mainstream" art. I've had serious funding for many areas of African art, Native American art, contemporary Native American art, contemporary African American art, as well as many other areas that show the cultural and historical depth of world art traditions.
Malcolm Richardson, deputy director of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, responds:
Yes, of course, some corporations do support contemporary and experimental art. I think first of an example from the theatre where American Express has been the principal sponsor of the Fund for New American Plays, a project originated by the late Roger Stevens and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (in cooperation with the President's Committee). The Fund continues to this day and provides much-needed support to regional non-profit theatres and playwrights for the staging of new works. Although the Fund has had a great record in developing new plays, including some productions which have migrated to Broadway, most of this work begins as an experiment in collaboration between a young playwright and a theatre which wants to put on new work but finds the price tag too high without external support.
Another example: I believe AT&T provided support to the Whitney Museum for a Basquiat exhibition, and the most recent Whitney Biennial enjoyed some corporate sponsorship--and I don't think anyone would classify shows like these as "safe." While it's probably true that most corporate donors are looking to avoid controversy, I think it's important to note that some companies do take risks or back new work.
I think these patrons understand that the line separating new work from the "mainstream" is not always a rigid one.
I'm also fascinated by reports of new collaborations in the high tech industries. The Xerox Research Park, I understand, has invited artists to its campus to experiment with new media, and I'm sure that there are a number of such quiet collaborations underway. I'm eager to learn more about them.