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March 23, 2012

Corporate Sponsorship of Art Falls but Gets Cleverer

By Spear's

’No-one knows who the Leonardo sponsor was, because the experience itself is bigger than the corporate sponsorship.’

It’s not hard to list some of the biggest art exhibitions in London in the last few months: Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery, David Hockney at the RA, Lucien Freud at the NPG. The bigger challenge is: can you name their main corporate sponsor?

I couldn’t off the top of my head, but Google helpfully provided the answer, and in order, the sponsors are: Credit Suisse, BNP Paribas, Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Now it ought to be a relief that it’s still possible to appreciate Lucien Freud’s portraits without being forced into a branded exhibition space emblazoned with hundreds of Merrill Lynch logos. But it may, however, go some way towards explaining the disappointing statistic that while individual arts philanthropy has gone up, business investment in arts has decreased for four years running, just as government cuts bite and after Jeremy Hunt promised that 2011 would be a ‘year of corporate giving’.

I put this statistic to Ian Ewart, a member of the Executive Committee at Coutts, last week. Interestingly he says that Coutts is pledging more money for corporate sponsorships this year and next, but also that the bank is now being more strategic about its partnerships. The days of free giveaways are over, and all banks are now thinking harder about how to sponsor events that strengthen relationships with existing clients and win over new ones, he says.  

The worry, then, is that sponsoring the big, expensive public exhibitions isn’t necessarily very effective — as Ewart puts it: ‘No-one knows who the Leonardo sponsor was, because the experience itself is bigger than the corporate sponsorship.’

The corresponding hope is that banks will not give up entirely on these big art deals (or force galleries to plaster their logo on everything, Emirates Stadium-style) but that instead they will come up with more creative ways of benefiting from their corporate sponsorships.

Leanne Prichard, Coutts fashion consultant for strategic solutions, says the bank is doing just that, by ‘trying to take the events and do something a bit more interesting with it, so that sponsorship is something more than just having your name on something.’ So, for instance, as well as sponsoring an upcoming exhibition of ballgowns at the V&A, they are taking six sets of mothers and daughters to preview the dresses before they’re put behind glass and learn more about the history of couture.

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BP, similarly, is a longstanding sponsor of the British Museum and while many of the paying public may not realise this connection, BP’s key clients and contacts are treated to privileged access to museum archives and pieces not on public display, as well as private views of upcoming exhibitions.

It’s sad that corporate arts funding should dwindle just as government funding is strangled too, but the economic reality is that executives will find arts philanthropy increasingly hard to justify to shareholders: the days of ‘chairman’s wife syndrome’ — where companies bankrolled the CEO or his wife’s latest hobby or art-crush – are over.

What is more hopeful is that rather than cutting back funding entirely, a new resolve to think strategically about arts gifts will mean that banks can keep on putting on the blockbuster public exhibitions while also achieving their corporate aims.

And, on a positive note, if banks become smarter and more imaginative, we’ll all be pleased to wave goodbye to what Ewart describes as ‘the kind of curled-up sandwich, warm fizzy wine events in some art gallery somewhere, that no one enjoys and no one goes back to’. Sound familiar?

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