Corporate sponsors aren't ogres: we have responsibilities like anyone else. And the cultural sector could benefit from developing new approaches to working with business
It is understandable that the British arts community is concerned about government proposals to cut arts funding. Apprehension is high around how the funding gap will be filled, and whether private funding will compromise artistic integrity and progress. The government proposes that the arts community adopt the US-based approach to arts funding, with less dependence upon public and more upon private funding sources. In fact, the British arts community already has a tradition of private philanthropic and corporate funding, so the difference with the US is really one of degree. And while the US may be further along the curve, with its longer, more comfortable relationship with private funding for the arts, in both nations the arts sector can benefit from new approaches to working with corporations. Similarly, many types of companies can and do benefit greatly from supporting the arts. But some fundamental changes need to occur to unlock this opportunity.
Importantly, cultural institutions must understand that the days of arts support based on executive whim are over. Companies have many people to answer to – shareholders among them – and must extract sound business benefits, such as access for employees, brand visibility and client outreach opportunities. This need not be a Faustian bargain, but a mutually beneficial one. Treat your funders like valued clients and, like all satisfied clients, they will become more loyal. Some organisations, such as the Old Vic and Tate, do this very effectively and make it easy for Bank of America Merrill Lynch to continue our support of them. Going beyond the big financials and the energy companies will diversify institutions' revenue bases. These are sound strategies for most businesses, certainly for financial institutions. So why not for the arts sector?
That said, companies have an obligation not to interfere in artistic matters. And more companies need to learn what support for the arts can do for their company. These may include connecting to existing or potential customers; creating benefits for employees; providing arts education to tomorrow's workforce; being a good corporate citizen; creating a more culturally aware society; enriching the community it is doing business in. Or perhaps all of these things.
Our company understands that the arts matter and that, as a marketing and corporate citizenship tool, the arts punch above their weight. On a foundation of business rigour and creative partnerships, we have been able to remain steadfast in our support of the arts – investing more than US$40m each year globally. Our support of the arts helps create healthier communities in which to do business and helps us to better understand our clients, employees, and the countries in which we do business.
Following our merger with Merrill Lynch, our company now has nearly 300,000 employees, and millions of clients, in more than 40 nations around the world – and thus a vested interest in improved cultural understanding. In fact, one of the most compelling reasons for corporations to invest in the arts is its power to create greater cultural understanding. Problems of economic stability, standards of living, the environment, peace and prosperity among nations and peoples all require a foundation of cultural understanding and tolerance to progress towards solutions.
Structural change within any sector brings with it short-term pain, and this is not to be understated. However, opportunity hides behind adversity. Evolving the model to include more engagement with business need not be the death knell for the arts. Rather, it may well be the key to its future.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016