Should Britain's arts organisations accept more corporate sponsorship?

What are the implications of corporations sponsoring the arts?

It is becoming increasingly difficult to go to a concert, see a play or visit an exhibition without encountering some form of corporate sponsorship. This ranges from the discreet company logo at the bottom of exhibition leaflets to the hijacking of venues' names (the Carling Academy, for example, or the O2 Arena).
 
With state funding for the arts to be cut by 29.6 per cent over the next four years (as announced on 20 October 2010), Britain's arts organisations are facing a tricky choice -- to carry on independently on a shoestring budget or to accept corporate money and risk interference.

The Arcola Theatre in east London has recently moved to a smart new building with more space for performances and youth and community projects. This move would not have been possible without corporate sponsorship, which included a large grant from Bloomberg.
 
Between 17-21 January 2010, Coutts bank hosted an arts festival in which nine organisations, including London's Royal Court Theatre, the Young Vic and the Royal College of Music, performed for 700 of the bank's clients over three nights. The participating theatres hope that wealthy audience members will be tempted to donate money to help plug the funding gap.
 
"So what if corporations sponsor the arts?" pragmatists may ask. "What's the problem?" Artists have long relied on wealthy patrons to support them. The Italian Renaissance, for example, was funded in large part by the wealthy Medici family and Coutts has a history of supporting the arts, beginning in the 18th century with its founder Thomas Coutts's donation of money to the Royal Opera House. There's a certain logic to the idea of banks, which are arguably partially responsible for landing the arts in this depressing, cash-strapped situation, doing something to contribute to the culture of the country.
 
For corporations, the benefits of donating to the arts is clear. As Gordon Pell, deputy chairman of Coutts, concedes, banks do not give money to the arts exclusively for charitable reasons. "This is a marketing exercise," he told The Financial Times. "We get reflected glory . . . Bankers could do with any reflected glory we can get."
 
However, this relationship may not be mutually beneficial. Are arts organisations, in their desperation for financial support, at risk of entering into a Faustian pact that will compromise their freedom and ethics?
 
Ben Todd, executive director of the Arcola Theatre, is optimistic. He believes that corporate sponsorship can be harnessed for good ends. "We do what we want and if they don't want to sponsor us next year, that's their choice. We would not take corporate sponsorship from anybody who would want to interfere."
 
However, artists value their freedom and increased corporate sponsorship does lead to potential conflicts of interest. It is difficult to imagine provocative shows such as Enron, which is about the failures of banking and regulation, The Power of Yes, David Hare's investigation into the 2008 credit crunch, or Fela!, which has a scene that denounces multinational corporations, being sponsored by the very corporations that they invite their audiences to question.
 
There are also questions of commercial viability. Who will support fringe events that are artistically important but commercially unproductive? Will upcoming talent suffer as a result of corporations not being willing to sponsor events that don't attract a huge crowd?
 
These are difficult questions and ones that anyone who cares about the arts should ask themselves. After all, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is thrilled at the prospect of corporate philanthropy funding the arts -- he's said he will "play cupid" and match businesses with arts organisations.

In 1951, the Labour government invested in culture, putting on the Festival of Britain at the South Bank Centre in London to cheer up a nation that was in the midst of postwar austerity. On its 60th anniversary, is the coalition government trying to absolve itself of its responsibility to support the arts in this period of austerity by pushing for more corporate philanthropy?

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My quest for an elusive can of juicy Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie ends with a Dolmio pasta sauce

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet.

The last time I addressed you from my bully-beef pulpit I was going to write about my all-consuming yen for a Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney pie, but as there wasn’t one to hand to mouth, I related the electronic cigarette incident at Pizza Express instead. This week, I can report that I have attempted to secure one of the meatylicious treats – and once again failed.

Mr Vairavar, who keeps the convenience store immediately beneath my flat, did have a Fray Bentos minced beef and onion pie on his shelves (and very attractively priced it was, too, at £1.99) but I knew that it wouldn’t hit the suety spot. I had already undertaken a smallish tour of supermarkets in the environs, and although I hadn’t secured the elusive pudding I still found plenty of food for thought.

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet. All convenience foods rely not on a specific ingredient, but rather on its absence: time has been left out, usually in favour of some artificial flavouring. I think of paella as a dish to be
prepared over hours, possibly an entire day. Cooked in the warm south, beneath the canopy of a leafy bower and before an azure sea – coaxed into full and piquant fruition by some adipose and moustachioed duenna, while almond-eyed kiddies dangle from her skirts and the menfolk sit around drinking harsh Rioja, smoking black tobacco and spitting.

Mind you, human ingenuity has been diminishing the temporal component of our cuisine for a long time now: in the Middle Ages salt was the preferred preservative, but by the 1900s tinned meat was being despatched from Fray Bentos in Uruguay and making the long voyage to dock in the British duodenum.

Also on Tesco’s shelves was an extensive selection of pasta sauces. All the usual suspects were there, including Loyd Grossman’s and several variations on the Dolmio theme. It had been a bad week for the Dolmio brand, what with Mars Food, which owns it, feeling it was incumbent on it to place a label on these sauces (and its other products) warning punters that they aren’t “everyday” foods but should be eaten only “occasionally” – say, once a week.

I stood in the aisle, my dreams macerated at my feet. Not eat a Dolmio pasta sauce every day of the week (and even twice daily)? What kind of freshly preserved, heavily sugared and salted hell was this? I have clung on for years to a vision of the good life, summed up for me by Dolmio pasta sauce adverts of the early 1990s, in which a tumultuously happy extended Neapolitan family chows down at a long table laid out under the spreading boughs of an olive tree: old crones and rosy-cheeked bambini, voluptuous girls and their blushing beaus, the entire assembly benignly surveyed by a greying paterfamilias, a role I reserved (don’t laugh) for myself.

True, I can actually count the number of times that I have eaten Dolmio pasta sauces on the fingers of one leprous hand, but as with most commodity fetishism – contra Marx – it’s the thought that counts. So, I bought a jar of Dolmio sauce and bore it home as a sort of edible time capsule; if it isn’t an “everyday” food, I reasoned, I could wait for the Apocalypse to crack off the lid.

I considered buying a jar of Loyd Grossman sauce as well. I’ve no idea if it’s any good but I met Grossman once, in his capacity as chairman of English Heritage’s blue plaque committee. He’d invited me to unveil the plaque for the short story writer H H Munro (whose nom de plume was Saki), which was to be sited on a property on Mortimer Street, London, now tenanted by a firm of accountants.

A scaffold had been put up outside so that the plaque could be mounted, but Loyd and I still had to crawl over one of the partners’ desks in order to reach it. I found him to be a warm and genuine man with no side at all – only a bottom, with which I was nose-to-tail during the desk-clambering. So, that’s the problem I have with his pasta sauces: instead of associating them with joyful consanguinity, I think of systematic pederasty. (Not, I hasten to add, because of Loyd Grossman’s bottom but because Saki had these proclivities and, according to his biographer, whom I met the same day, the writer kept a scrupulous menu of his conquests, including details of their, um, portion size.)

The next stop was Lidl – always a bizarre experience. The last branch of Lidl I’d visited was situated exactly on the death strip of the old Berlin Wall and surrounded by silver birches that looked to be precisely 25 years old. It was sheer foolishness to expect this outlet to have one of the elusive Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney puddings – its stock is discounted stuff that it has picked up cheap.

Fun fact: founded in 1930, Lidl was originally called Schwarz Foods but being referred to as “Schwarzmarkt” would have been a bit of a liability, especially once war was declared, and so the name was changed. There were no black-market puddings here but almost an entire aisle stacked with serrano hams! I would have bought one of these time-infused meats . . . but I had my Dolmio end-of-the-world to look forward to.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism