Corporate Partnerships with the Arts: A Question of Ethics

It’s an old story now that money for the arts is running thin. We are all au fait with the ‘climate of austerity’, the cuts to funding for the Arts Council and the tightened purse strings of local authorities. The arts are being asked, explictly, to become more entrepreneurial. That’s sort of fine – I don’t support the cuts but arts and commerce have gone hand in hand nearly since their inception. Anyone producing today knows the challenges, and those whose glass is half full can see cuts as inspiring creative solutions while remaining proponents for public investment in the sector.

That all aside, this spirit of entrepreneurialism and diversification of funding streams is drawing the arts closer to corporate entities. Corporate partnerships with the arts look very different today to the sponsorship model of the past, evolving into closer synergies as both parties – arts and business – have realised the gains to be made. But such relationships are not without their problems, especially when we get into the tricky issue of ethics. Why does it matter who we get funding from? Surely any money we can muster to produce brilliant cultural products is worth having? That’s the argument that Nicholas Serota makes, in the face of the criticism Tate gets for its deal with BP, the multinational oil company. He says, all money is a bit dirty and really we can’t pick and choose who lines our pockets. The Tate would further argue that curatorial practice and programming remain independent of their sponsor.

So why are all those campaigning groups so passionate about intervening in this potentially lucrative funding resource? As Platform points out, some money is dirtier than others. Climate change cats long shadows over a very real future, and oil companies exist to exploit the remaining oil reserves which, when used, will push us beyond what our earth can bear if we want to retain an alright standard of living. 2071, at the Royal Court, summed it up like this: “Less than a fifth of the world’s remaining coal reserves can be burnt to avoid dangerous global warming.” Not only that, but BP faces seriously dodgy charges regarding human rights. Organisations like the Tate, The RSC and the National Portrait Gallery face what academics call “image transfer”. In other words, public perception of the companies you’re linked to also effect your own image. The image transfer is reciprocal: the corporate gains social legitimacy from the partnership. That’s all clear from the protests and protest art that’s been ongoing since the noughties.

More than that, partnerships with the arts aren’t a one way exchange. We don’t yet know the details and extent of the BP-Tate deal. An information tribunal recently ordered Tate to release the details of their sponsorship deals with BP for the period covering 1990-2006. And you can be pretty certain BP is getting creative business development consultancy and corporate entertainment packages, as well as the legitimising stamp of approval of their logo spread all over Tate promotional material. BP sponsoring the Tate is also the Tate sponsoring BP. There also isn’t really enough evidence either way on ‘artistic integrity’ of programming and market orientation to corporates, by arts organisations. So we shall leave that aside for the time being. And we will give Tate the fact that, for example, it has been cooperative about allowing freedom to protest.

The final concern for corporate sponsorship of the arts is its leaning towards blockbuster projects by stellar institutions. Companies want maximum marketing expsoure. That’s fine, per se, until we think about the regional discrepancies in funding that have been hotly discussed in the press. Corporate partnerships exacerabate these inequalities – big business is centralised in our capital and their money tends to be distributed to the big London cultural organisations. It’s a negative circle of feedback which enforces London-centricism of culture in our country.

Are we saying corporate partnerships with the arts should be avoided? Not really – we couldn’t be without them now. And actually, there are companies whose corporate partnerships have enabled really exciting work. Punchdrunk collaborated with Stella Artois Black on their immersive production The Black Diamond. The first scene was essentially an exercise in product placement for Stella Artois Black, with audience members given tokens for heavily branded glasses of beer. But before you cringe at such blatant experiential marketing, listen to the audience receptions of the piece. The national press didn’t really cover it, but the bloggers shout with one loud voice: they loved it. Punchdrunk were doing what they do best – immersive, site specific theatre – and getting to give out free tickets to their fans.

Another immsersive theatre company, Theatre Delicatessen, is founded on corporate partnerships. Theate Deli makes use of disused buildings – like old newspaper offices – in central London locations to make really cool theatre. The owners get significantly reduced business rates, great PR and authentic CSR; in return Theatre Deli gets a prime location and a cut of the the cash the owner saves on rates to make its theate. Yes, they have to make compromises. But these partnerships enable prominent artistic expression, integrity intact.

A drinks company is not perfectly clean, however boldy badged with drinking awareness, and I’m sure the property developers Theatre Deli works with could be accused of gentrification somewhere down the line. But those issues doesn’t come near the filthy level of multinational oil company resource exploitation and negative impact. The arts do have a choice. Tobacco, gambling and weaponry, which all used to be commonplace funders for culture, have all been cut loose. Legitimising the controversial, to say the least, business practice of oil companies with subliminal messaging is not the way forward.

Still not convinced? Think it’s unrealistic to cut such a major stem of the arts funding stream? Check out Tate a Tate’s Introduction to Oil Sponsorship.