"The role of the sponsor is to be the intelligent running critic of the exhibition as it is being put together”, says James Joll, the genially donnish finance director of the international media giant, Pearson plc. He is the financial director of this group of companies (1993 turnover: £1.277bn) which includes, among others, the Financial Times, Lazard Investment bankers, Thames Television, the Penguin Group and the US-based educational publishers, Addison Wesley. His sideline, conducted with gusto, is the devising, together with Clare Peddell, public affairs manager, of an exhibition sponsorship programme which by now has become fairly indispensable to London.
They favour well researched subjects, more British than foreign, and avoid “difficult” art. Only once have they strayed into populist territory, with the much derided "Sovereign" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum two years ago, which presented 40 years of the Queen’s reign complete with works of art, but also a stuffed corgi. Pearson learned their lesson and they never denied the reports that it cost them half a million pounds.
As the interview here shows, they have developed from mere financers of exhibitions to partners of the show's organisers. They believe that they can really help the institutions to plan an exhibition better. With such well-intentioned and intelligent partners, the museums should have nothing to complain about. Similar powers in the hands of less gifted and less gentlemanly sponsors might be regrettable.
The Art Newspaper: When did Pearson start getting involved in sponsorship?
James Joll: The first exhibition we sponsored was "Landseer" in 1982. It was the Tate Gallery’s first acceptance of sponsorship, and it was a bit like two virgins going to bed for the first time. We were each fumbling our way, not really quite knowing how to do it.
The first exhibition we sponsored was 'Landseer' in 1982. It was the Tate's first acceptance of sponsorship, and it was a bit like two virgins going to bed for the first time. We were each fumbling our way, not really quite knowing how to do it.
It wasn’t frightfully expensive. We halved our budget for financial advertising, which was quite high in those days because we used to take pages in all sort of newspapers to advertise the results of Pearson in a not terribly exciting way, and we put that money on "Landseer" so that if it was a disaster then it couldn’t be said that we had wasted a vast amount of money, simply redirected it. It allowed us—and this is a constant theme—to entertain a number of our advisers, shareholders, competitors, customers, and so to bring together senior executives in the group, which in those days was even more disparate than it is today. People liked it and so we got a taste for it.
What have been the public’s and your clients’ reactions?
Clare Peddell: I think that we’ve expanded the benefits to Pearson in that we now offer shareholders and employees a free pass to the exhibitions, which is widely taken up. For Toulouse-Lautrec, 2,500 shareholders and employees out of about 50,000 in the UK, attended the exhibition.
JJ: And probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise.
CP: Now we are much harder nosed about the size of our logo on the poster, the information material that goes out and even on the letters to lenders, which is something new. If you know that an exhibition is well underwritten, I think you are more likely to lend.
Why do you sponsor?
JJ: The policy is to sponsor one major visual arts exhibition in London. That is where our head office is, where our major connections with opinion formers are. We have a reputation for high quality businesses and this sponsorship really enforces our image. We also believe that we enable exhibitions to happen that would otherwise not take place.
CP: A lot of our companies are much better known than we are. If you are Mr Mars Bar you want to sponsor the London Marathon. If you are Mr Pearson, you want to make sure that you’re intimately known by everybody in business, in government and in the Civil Service—opinion formers generally. So we have decided on our audience, we have targeted it and we’ve been jolly successful in reaching it. Sometimes our book companies publish the catalogues for the exhibitions although that is not always the case.
How far ahead do you plan?
CP: We used to have a rolling programme of about eighteen months ahead, whereas now we plan three to four years ahead because that is how far ahead the museums are planning.
JJ: We are anxious to get the most interesting, worthwhile exhibitions to sponsor, either that museums are putting on or that we might want to put on, because we have shifted from being a purely passive act. In addition, the exhibition has a better chance of being really interesting if there is sufficient time and some money to go on research. With the "Armada" exhibition we started financing the research a couple of years before. It meant that instead of recycling the obvious things it contained new archival discoveries.
CP: That is what we have also done with the Tate for the "Dynasties" painting exhibition next year. There we have been paying for a curator for three years.
Would you sponsor something outside your geographical areas of activity?
JJ: I don’t think so because our customers, friends and competitors are here. We wouldn’t do something big in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
CP: Not under the Pearson heading, but if opportunities arose which suited other group companies we would pass them on to them.
Can you tell me how much money you give in all?
JJ: I think that our first exhibition wasn’t even six figures. Normally they are six figures and they vary depending on the cost of the exhibition and the deal that we do: revenue sharing or underwriting.
With the "Pugin" and "William Morris" shows, the net cost of both will depend on how they do. With the former we have underwritten the budget, and we get some revenue sharing if it does quite well. If it doesn’t, then we’ll get a little bit back against the future Morris ticket receipts. The V&A has a nil budget for an exhibition, but 100% sponsorship is more than we feel tolerable for us. So we say: OK, we’ll underwrite the budget, but we want to participate in your revenue.
Do you help agree the budget with the museum at the outset?
CP: We do get very involved in these discussions and I think that is where the museums don’t like us very much. But at the same time it’s terribly important that we are not associated with an exhibition where all the money has gone on display, for example, and nothing on marketing.
What this really means is that the two things—sponsorship and the event—are now moving together hand in hand.
CP: In the old days they’d say “send a cheque”, and we tipped up at the end. For some museums it’s quite a shock to find us so acutely aware of how much conservation, transport and so on cost.
Which was your most instructive exhibition?
CP: I joined just while we were doing the "Raj" exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. They are very professional there, and so I learned how to do it well. Similarly with the "Toulouse-Lautrec" exhibition at the Hayward Gallery
Do you do co-sponsorships?
JJ: Reluctantly. It’s hard enough to get the sponsor’s name into a newspaper, poster, or your mind, let alone all three.
Do the various incentive or prize schemes for good sponsors, like one organised by the Association of Business Sponsorship for the Arts, influence you?
JJ: Not at all.
Who decides on what you are going to sponsor?
JJ: Clare and I try to be aware of what is coming up, or sometimes, as in the case of Pugin and Morris, they are ideas we have engendered with a museum. The chairman is the ultimate arbiter, and he is consistently very supportive, a great believer in Mrs Thatcher’s view that individuals and companies must do more and the State must do less.
You’ve talked a little bit about what you expect in return. Is there anything you want to add to that?
CP: I think that it is maddening for the press not to acknowledge sponsors. It just seems to me that this is so short-sighted if their art critics want to remain in work. It’s not that we expect great adulation, just a one-liner at the bottom of the page.
Sponsorship is not a philanthropic gesture; it’s what it says it is
JJ: It’s very difficult to justify to others in our organisation if the reviews make no mention of Pearson. We are in a business. Sponsorship is not a philanthropic gesture; it’s what it says it is. We want certain benefits in association which are good for no commercially and good for our image in return for supporting and making possible an exhibition.
How does the company react to failures where the press and the public haven’t liked an exhibition or where something has ended up costing you a lot of money?
CP: Only “Sovereign” was a failure, but even that actually attracted 250,000 visitors. “Armada” got 400,000, "Toulouse-Lautrec" 250,000. Because it got a bad press and the organisers were expecting far more, it got slagged off. I thought that was unfortunate. Fine, it cost us more money than we budgeted for, but if you sponsor something that’s the risk you take.
• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Who sponsors what, why and what is the quip pro quo"