Business and the Arts (Article 3, The Creative & Cultural Column, in HullMag)

The Creative & Cultural Column

Business and the Arts

What are the disadvantages of businesses getting involved in supporting the arts? One well-founded worry is that businesses will play it safe and only want to support non-controversial subject matter. After all, no business wants to be associated with frightening, disgusting or confusing their customers. Also, those deciding on where to put their sponsorship are not necessarily art experts. For these reasons, there is an expectation that they will play it safe, putting money into the classics, the middlebrow, the established and commercial. In a corporate arts world, would it all be Swan Lake and Van Gogh exhibitions?

Earlier this year, there was much debate over another aspect of business sponsorship of the arts. After a three-year legal battle, the Tate was obliged to release figures showing that over a 17-year period they had received £3.8 million in donations from the oil company, BP. Some criticism dwelt on the protracted attempts to keep the financial details away from prying eyes but the issue for most was the way the Tate appeared to have sold itself to provide an air of respectability to a controversial company. This concern was underlined by the fact that the Tate had signed up to the 10:10 campaign, which promotes practical action to address climate change. It’s understandable that arts organisations and advocates would be concerned about this case. The last thing an arts organisation wants is the wrong kind of publicity, which is what you might get from the wrong kind of sponsorship. Selling your soul for the business penny is not what most arts organisations set out do.

The Tate, however, had its defenders such as cultural sociologist and writer, Tiffany Jenkins, who said “I have no problem with oil companies, we need them. I’m suspicious of this notion that the arts needs to be ethically funded. These are difficult times for the arts and they need the money.” More pragmatic arts advocates might agree with her. Or they might at least be tempted to set aside some of their concerns because there are some serious advantages to taking the corporate penny over state and voluntary funding. There’s a lot less paperwork for a start. And there is the possibility that you are getting your support from a genuine and passionate lover of your artistic offer, rather than a faceless adjudicator waiting for you to convince them that you are good at completing funding applications . And they are (probably) not influenced by the same government policy either.

A few years ago it seemed like no artistic endeavour would be considered without some sort of well-defined social purpose. These days it seems as if art funding has been stripped of its social benefit. Surely the social context of any art should be a result of the art itself and not some government white paper.

The case of the Tate perhaps provides a cautionary tale but there are many rather more encouraging stories to be told. For example, the National Portrait Gallery’s Photographic Portrait Prize has been sponsored by law firm, Taylor Wessing, since 2008. Closer to home, Claire Suggitt, Centre Manager of Princes Quay Shopping Centre, offers a positive perspective on her experience: “Princes Quay is the only shopping centre in Hull to have three units facilitating arts and culture. It’s played a huge role in attracting a regular, captive audience, which in turn has increased footfall into the centre. We have been able to reach an alternative audience and receive on-going coverage for the fantastic exhibitions and activities that take place within those units, a great return of investment for all retailers, as everyone benefits. Arts events at the Quay embrace partnerships with both the arts and cultural side of the centre and they certainly benefit from an overall joint approach.” This positive partnership has opened the door to other businesses to engage with the curators. Resulting in further sponsored exhibitions being produced and one whole gallery in the Quay being sponsored long term by Hull paper Company G. F. Smith.

Garry Saunt, a painter who has exhibited in POP (Pride Of Place) Art Space Princes Quay, echoes Claire’s positivity: “Exposure of my art to everyday people through commerce, has been a very positive experience. Since I engaged with businesses in Princes Quay, I feel as if I’m at the forefront of getting art back into the community through the free market. An altogether different test to when I have put art into other galleries, where the test was just to convince the curator. The public feedback broadens art out for me and improves access to art for people who wouldn’t normally come across it.”

Possibly the most unusual example of arts sponsorship is the story of how the CIA secretly promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting by using it as a propaganda weapon in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It’s not that they particularly appreciated the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. In fact, the majority of Americans in the 50s and 60s disliked modern art. President Truman famously said of it: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” The CIA used it to highlight the more rigid conformity imposed on Soviet artists and as way of demonstrating the intellectual freedom and cultural power of the USA.

This episode reminds us that sponsorship isn’t the same thing as philanthropy. A Sponsor will, of course, have their own motives, their own values and their own agenda. So motives, values and agendas on either side of a proposed sponsorship should always be as open and transparent as possible. Then arts organisations and business sponsors will be better placed to decide whether a partnership is likely to be productive and in the best case scenario, truly symbiotic.

On the whole it is proving very positive in Hull. So Artists, Businesses, over to you…


Doctor on Pier by Gary Saunt

Doctor On The Pier by Gary Saunt





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