Auctioning the Arts

Donations to major arts institutions used to be a civic responsibility: Wealthy patrons gave money to the local museum or orchestra in exchange for a lavish thank-you dinner and improved status among their peers. Not anymore. Today that blockbuster Picasso show functions as a kind of high-class race car onto which corporations can slap their logos. And the end of the ’90s economic boom means that now, more than ever, corporate sponsorship comes with a quid pro quo. “The need to be a good corporate neighbor?that has been declining,” one beleaguered fund-raiser recently told The New York Times. “When you’re talking about corporate sponsorships, you’re dealing with bang for the buck.”

Public radio and television led the way in the mid-1990s. Prohibited by the FCC from selling advertisements, the stations pioneered a form of “enhanced underwriting” that is virtually indistinguishable from commercials. The art world followed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art lists a menu of exclusive sponsorships right on its Web site: $250,000 to put your logo on the Richard Avedon exhibit that opened in September; $750,000 for an exhibit of Colonial Andean art; $900,000 for American impressionist Childe Hassam. Many orchestras are naming concerts and even whole seasons after corporate sponsors, while classical music buffs at this year’s Aspen Music Festival can kick the tires of a lobby-display Audi–the official car of the festival.

Even literature has gotten into the act. Fay Weldon’s notorious novel The Bulgari Connection was basically a series of product placements for the Bulgari jewelry store (which paid an undisclosed sum for the promo). And a recent issue of the highbrow literary magazine Creative Nonfiction was sponsored by JP Morgan Chase. Called “Diversity Dialogues” and featuring work by literary heavyweights Andrei Codrescu, Terry Tempest Williams, and Richard Rodriguez, the issue has an introduction by Chase’s current CEO. (“This compelling collection of essays reflects our firm’s commitment to respect each individual.”) The magazine’s editor, Lee Gutkind, contributes a long and glowing tribute to the bank’s former chairman of the board, Walter V. Shipley. (“Shipley is imposing–6 feet 8 inches tall–and as John J. Farrell, vice president of human resources at Chase, discovered, he could also be very determined.”)

Is there really anything wrong with this? Underfunded arts get a bump, corporate citizens get to show they care–and drive some business their way–while the rest of us get access to some great art. Critics raise a number of objections. For one thing, funders (and arts organizations) might steer away from controversial projects that offend the corporate patron or the consumers it targets. Or, seeking to maximize “market penetration,” corporate sponsors might fund only major arts organizations–orchestras and museums that offer the most audience hits.

But the problems go deeper than that. For one thing, sponsorship is a two-way street. By linking their names, performances, reputations, and scholarship to the likes of General Electric, Ford Motor Company, and JP Morgan, arts organizations are endorsing these corporations. What’s for sale (in addition to access to audiences) is literally the prestige and integrity of the arts institution. But you can only sell your integrity for a little while, and then you run out of it. Which is the other problem with corporate sponsorship: It undermines the integrity of the arts themselves. Is it the job of art to challenge our basic assumptions? Well, the supremacy of commerce in our culture is one of the assumptions most in need of challenge. Should art offer spiritual uplift? Then commodifying it is as offensive as selling naming rights to a temple. Should art attempt to speak the truth? We’ve all been trained to accept that marketing and advertising place persuasion at the top of the agenda, and truth somewhere else.

In short, if arts organizations continue to align themselves with the marketing arms of corporate America while pretending to serve and enlighten us, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant. Our political system’s funding structure and romance with marketing is a cautionary case in point. The sense that politicians will say practically anything to project a carefully crafted image, secure a voting bloc, or keep major donors on board has nearly emptied our political campaigns of real debate and genuine public participation and concern.

In fact, the only function of art that seems consistent with corporate sponsorship is its role as entertainment. But ironically enough, highly entertaining art forms like film and popular music have no need of philanthropy: Audiences are happy to pay for them. Even more ironic is the fact that economic clout allows certain popular artists to be moral compasses. Take the British anarcho/punk band Chumbawamba. Last year General Motors paid $100,000 for the rights to the band’s song “Pass It Along”–money that Chumbawamba immediately donated to the groups IndyMedia and CorpWatch. “As a result,” reports the London Observer, “the two groups are now spending GM’s money to mount an aggressive information and environmental campaign–against GM.”

Since the economic slump began last fall, arts fund-raisers have been complaining of a sharp decline in corporate giving. IEG, a sponsorship information corporation, predicts a dip in the $610 million funneled into arts organizations in 2001, and the effects are already observable. Symphony orchestras seem especially hard hit: Orchestras in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Antonio all face deficits of nearly $1 million or more, while those in Dallas, St. Louis, Toronto, Calgary, and Chicago are also cash-strapped. The San Jose Symphony recently went bankrupt and shut down. Growing deficits and declining contributions undoubtedly will result in even more pressure to advertise and promote the corporate agenda in exchange for rent money. Talk about singing for your supper.

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