Exhibitions Museums Attendance USA

Corporate sponsors play it safe

The economic downturn has forced a more strategic approach to arts spending

Despite the difficult economic climate, some corporate sponsors continue to support the arts

Businesses are continuing their support of the arts, despite the economic downturn, but they have become more choosy about the exhibitions and institutions they back.

“In the middle of a recession, there’s still money, but what’s needed is confidence,” says Philip Spedding, the director of Arts & Business, a UK-based group that develops private- and public-sector partnerships. Plus, he adds, “if you’re about to fire half your staff, sponsoring an arts project could send out the wrong kind of signal”.

The most recently published analysis by Arts & Business found that business investment in the arts fell for the fourth year in a row in 2011 (by 7%) in the UK. The situation is similar across the Atlantic. Since the economic downturn, “the corporations [that museums] can turn to are fewer and fewer”, says Rena De Sisto, the arts and culture executive for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. She says that her bank, which is currently backing Tate Modern’s “Lichtenstein: a Retrospective” (until 27 May), has “remained steadfast” in its support.

International business leaders are sensitive to the messages that arts sponsorship can send out during challenging times and are playing it safe in terms of the institutions they back. The law firm Taylor Wessing has sponsored the Photographic Portrait Prize at London’s National Portrait Gallery since 2008, and has just committed to doing so for the next three years. Tim Eyles, the managing partner of Taylor Wessing UK, says: “You can be absolutely confident that the quality of the work will be excellent at the National Portrait Gallery.” Roland Rudd, the founding partner of the international communications firm RLM Finsbury, is full of praise for the Tate (his firm sponsored the museum’s “Picasso & Modern British Art” exhibition in 2012). Rudd, who became the chairman of the Tate’s corporate advisory group in 2009, says that the institution has been able to raise money in an economic downturn because of its “unique” influence and reach.

De Sisto says that Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s exhibition sponsorship has become “more global in nature”, because it has “grown as our company has grown, not only in terms of the financial support but in terms of the geographies we reach”. The Roy Lichtenstein exhibition opened at the Art Institute of Chicago last year, followed by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; after London, it is due to travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris (3 July-4 November).

Further down the museum spectrum, however, finding support is an even tougher task. Philip Spedding says that one unintended effect of the “swingeing” state cuts to the arts is that would-be business sponsors are sometimes put off by a lack of public endorsement—a double-whammy for lesser-known organisations. “I would like to see more mid-sized companies and even professional practices get involved in supporting their local arts organisations,” De Sisto says.

Rudd says this even extends to institutions as well-known as the Tate, where it is harder to find backing for exhibitions below the blockbuster billing. Tate Britain’s Kurt Schwitters exhibition (until 12 May) has no corporate sponsor, for example. “Sometimes it’s more of a struggle, so we put together a ‘club deal’, in which two or three institutions sponsor one exhibition together,” he says. For the Tate’s Henry Moore exhibition in 2010, Rudd’s firm joined forces with Goldman Sachs and British Land. Museums are also increasingly aware that the current economic environment means that the needs on both sides of the sponsorship relationship are greater. Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, says: “Sponsorship is not a donation; it’s a deal. It has to work for the business as well as for us.” This is an important mindset for those wishing to secure business backing, Spedding says. “Too many arts organisations just think ‘you have money, we don’t, can we have some?’ rather than ‘what can we do with each other?’ It’s a tough change to deliver, but it has to happen,” he says.

When it does work, it works both ways. Museums get much-needed funds to support their programmes and businesses get a cost-effective way to promote their brands. “Putting something back is more important than ever. People are very sceptical about what businesses bring to the community at the moment,” Rudd says.

To read the full 2012 attendance figures survey in Section 2 of the April edition, which includes exhibition rankings, extra features and analysis, subscribers can log in to our digital edition, or new readers can subscribe now for immediate access.

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