|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? Why shouldn't art be subject to market forces? If the "small, experimental" projects cannot get funding, perhaps they are of no value except to their creators.
Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the National Association of Artists' Organizations, responds:
Cultural and artistic value is not something that is immediately determined and to reduce arts value to an economic measurement is ridiculous. The measurement of art's worth is associated with the humanitarian gains it brings to our society. We debate what these gains are constantly, and with some contemporary art work these debates are highly charged, i.e. art works that deal with sexuality. To continue with this example, sex is about our lives and the knowledge we can gain from an Afro-American Lesbian, or an HIV positive individual, or an incest survivor about their sexuality is knowledge that aims to increase our compassion and tolerance for others. These artistic expressions are about compassion and tolerance and not about product.
Economic gain and humanitarian gain overlap but they are not one in the same. Art operates in the sphere of humanitarian gain and those gains are often not known for a while, i.e. the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and his idea of beauty. Art is about visions and the vision an artist brings to their creations is at times an utopian vision of how we live together. The value of this work is that it may speak to our aspiration to be more than a lower creature. The market is the sphere of products, art is the sphere of dreams and visions. There is a relationship between the two, but to reduce art value and meaning to being a product is a reduction that guts art's soul.
Ben Cameron, manager of community relations for Target Stores, responds:
Art has never been dependent solely on market forces. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in Greek drama were produced in state supported festivals; Shakespeare was patronized and supported by the royal household; the great portraits in visual art were commissioned by wealthy patrons, etc. As we know, all the major Pulitzer Prize winners of the past several decades--- from Driving Miss Daisy to A Chorus Line to Rent began in the nonprofit theater and were made possible charitable support.
The creation of art is more analogous to the realm of research and development than it is to product sale. And in the same way we support research in medicine through grants, the way we support space exploration and research through government subsidy, the way we support education research through charitable contributions, we need to support the cultural, the spiritual, and the intellectual research that the arts perform through comparable subsidy.
Subsidy also keeps the arts affordable for the broadest possible population. A great majority of arts education programs for kids, free museum days and outreach programs for economically disadvantaged populations are made possible ONLY through subsidy; indeed, ticket prices and admission fees would skyrocket and make the arts inaccessible for a vast number of Americans if there were no subsidy and the arts were reliant solely on the market forces.
Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Arts Center responds:
History just isn't made simply out of market forces. If one looks backward, the story is often of the experimental project becoming in time the historical marker of a culture. While we certainly need to educate our audiences -- so that they buy into innovation as well as something already deemed important -- we also need (like all great corporations) to support the research and development of new and untested works by both emerging and established artists. As in any laboratory setting, not all the experiments will be revelatory, but even "failure" often opens the path to original and crucial questions. Not everything great is popular. As we become a more diverse country with different values and criteria for establishing what is "good,” we have to recognize that mass appeal (as opposed to niche markets) may be less a measure of success. In the arts there are many market forces: individuals, communities, corporations, foundations, and government; it's the collective power of these funding sources which moves the culture forward. Certainly it would be sad if all we were remembered by were commercially successful television shows and big-budget movies.
Gary O. Larson, freelance writer, responds:
The "market forces" argument is a convenient dodge, as long as we're permitted to set aide those areas of special concern (which range all the way from national parks and interstate highways to air traffic controllers and the Center for Disease Control) that all but the most delusional libertarians would agree are not well served by laissez-faire capitalism alone. Since 1965, the arts and humanities have enjoyed such protected status in the form of recognition (and funding) at the federal level, and in terms of tax exemption and the deductibility of charitable gifts, cultural organizations have been at least partially shielded from the vagaries of the marketplace for much longer than that.
Large museums, performing arts institutions, and media projects receive the lion's share of corporate support of the arts, it is true. But "small, experimental projects" is hardly a fair description of the long list of activities that normally fall beyond the scope of such patronage. That list generally falls into two categories: the low-profile and the high-risk. Among the former are inner-city cultural centers, rural arts programs, and any number of activities (from rehearsal costs to overhead expenses to debt retirement) that are no less necessary for being unglamorous. The high-risk category is even more varied, with all manner of aesthetic explorations--some destined to fail--and political statements--some designed to provoke--falling well beyond the ten-foot pole by which most corporate patrons (or advertising execs) assess their candidates for underwriting support. Doubly vexed, as both low-profile and high risk, are the vast majority of individual artists (recently cut adrift by the federal government as well), who lack the public-relations clout of major institutions, and possess all of the perceived danger of experimental and politically charged work.
Is this situation likely to change? Not unless a lot more companies than Benneton and Absolut discover the cachet of radical-chic art. What COULD change, with a little forethought and concerted effort, is the response of others in the philanthropic sector. Given the inherent limitations of corporate support, it behooves foundations and government arts councils alike to look more closely at the funding environment for the arts--beyond the global, million-dollar figures that are inherently deceptive--in an effort to see where the greatest needs really are, and to begin to reduce the sheer redundancy of arts support in the U.S. The (comparatively) rich really do get richer in this regard, for all the right and wrong reasons. But after nearly forty years of more-or-less systematic public and private arts support in this country, isn't it time for the system to become a little more accountable?
For all of my belief in the peer-review system, I still marvel at the phenomenon of panels meeting simultaneously at the federal, state, and local levels, and with parallel discussions taking place in corporate board rooms and foundation offices across the country, all arriving at the less-than-startling conclusion that the Boston Symphony Orchestra (for example) deserves a grant. I marvel not because the BSO is unworthy of such support, for it certainly should be funded. My astonishment, rather, is that we've come up with such an elaborate system to make what should be obvious choices, when the real work to be done--analyzing our culture for the neglected areas, targeting the "endangered species" for special attention--is neglected.
Again, I have little hope that corporate funders, as driven as they are by public-relations motivations, will ever be able to contribute to this kind of analysis. Nor, frankly, do I see much help coming from either Washington (where hand-wringing and hunkering down still seem to be the dominant modes of behavior) or from the foundation community (which gives little evidence of any willingness to participate in concerted efforts). Rugged individualism, which is such a becoming characteristic of our artists, looks much more like a personality flaw among their patrons.
Dr. Evan Maurer, director and CEO of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, responds:
Art has always been subject to market forces whether for the purchase of individual works of art or for the support of exhibitions. It is up to museum professionals to be able to balance their financial resources with their artistic missions and hopefully this balance will include small, and perhaps even experimental, projects as well. Small projects especially do not require major funding from outside corporate sources because they usually can be accomplished within the budget of the museum or gallery itself. It's at these times especially that general operating funds should be used to present work which the curators and directors of these institutions feel are valuable experiences for their public constituencies. Their ability to be seen should not be dependent upon funding from corporations.
Malcolm Richardson, deputy director of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, responds:
Actually, much contemporary art is subject to market forces, and in many instances this direct contact with an audience benefits both the creators and the consumers. But many worthwhile activities--including higher education, the non-profit arts, and other civic goods--cannot be sustained at high levels of quality without some form of subsidy or investment. Last year, when the President's Committee issued Creative America, our report to President Clinton on cultural funding issues, we took pains to explain this underlying economic reality.
We have also issued a working paper by the economist William Baumol which explains, far better than I can, why the non-profit sector generally and the arts in particular cannot incorporate productivity gains from technology and other factors that provide costs-savings to for-profits. Baumol's most famous explanation is summarized in his wry observation that it still takes four professional musicians an hour to play certain Beethoven quartets. We can't shorten the piece or omit one of the musicians without fundamentally altering the work!
As long as audiences want to hear such work live, or see a series of paintings in an optimal public space, we will need non-profit organizations to provide a venue (and an economic structure) where the public can enjoy the art.