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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Moss Side Public Laundry, 1979

A new poem by Pippa Little.

Childless I arrive with a rucksack,
own no Silver Cross steered topple-high
by the bare-legged women in check coats
and bulging shoes who load and unload
ropes of wet sheets, wring them out
to rams’ horns while heat-slap of steam
dries to tinsel in our hair, frizzles our lips
gritty with Daz sherbert dabs and the mangle,
wide as a room-size remnant, never stops groaning
one slip and you’re done for…

In the boom and echo of it, their calls swoop
over Cross-your-Hearts, Man. City socks,
crimplene pinks and snagged underskirts,
Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out! blasts
from across the park, whole streets
get knocked out like teeth,
in a back alley on the way a man
jumped me, shocked as I was
by the fuck off! I didn’t know was in me

but which I try out now to make them laugh, these women
who scrub blood and beer and come
with red-brick soap, quick-starch a party dress
while dryers flop and roar
before their kids fly out of school,
flock outside for a smoke’s sweet rest
from the future bearing down of four walls and one man.

Pippa Little’s collection Overwintering (Carcanet) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Award. Her new book, Twist, was published in March by Arc. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder