Opportunity or Threat?

Feature in Issue 5-1 | Spring 1993

Taking a general view of the Arts Sponsorship arena, Kath Gorman points out some of the benefits.

The Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts (ABSA) survey for 91/92 revealed that, despite the recession, arts sponsorship totalled £65.5 million for the year. There had actually been an increase in the level of Corporate sponsorship from £44.6 million in 90/91 to £57.5 million in 91/92. These may seem surprising figures at a time when most companies are tightening their belts. One would have thought the last thing on the corporate agenda would be arts sponsorship.

Arts Sponsorship is not a new phenomenon. Over the centuries the wealthy have been patrons of artists in order to bask in the reflected glow of their genius. Victorian cities prided themselves on their civic buildings and statues which conveyed an impression of prosperity. However, the buzz word ‘sponsorship’ is a relatively new addition to the job description of the already overworked arts administrator. Since 1979 the government has been intent on reducing arts organisations' reliance on direct funding by encouraging them to increase their proportion of earned income and to expand their use of sponsorship and private contributions. The government has also encouraged local funding partnerships and various incentive schemes, along with the decentralisation of funding authorities. Local authorities have many burdens and because arts expenditure is discretionary it is one of the first areas to be cut when a local authority is threatened by government capping. A 1991 Labour Party survey reported that local authorities in London alone had reduced funding for arts and libraries by £8.35 million in that year.

Balancing this, the European Committee for Business, Arts and Culture survey published in July 92 shows that British companies are leading the European league table of arts sponsors. ‘The survey of almost 120 companies shows that although the UK may still be trailing near the bottom of the league table of arts funding, our corporate backers are at the top, running and creating the most professional and successful sponsorship programmes... The Success of the British model is put down to the... concept of plural arts funding, particularly the introduction of matching funding through the Business Sponsorship Incentive Scheme (BSIS) which is seen to have played a significant role.’

The common lament amongst small arts organisations is that sponsorship monies are swallowed up by high profile names like the RSC and the Royal National Theatre. Another truism is that businesses will only sponsor ‘safe’ art such as opera, ballet and classical music. Although while researching this article I could find no mention of Mime or Physical Theatre there are some enlightened businesses who can see the benefits of being associated with something outside the mainstream. Beck's Bier is an example of a company who knows its market – young, upwardly mobile – reflected in its sponsorship of two companies, Theatre de Complicite and Red Shift, which are known for exciting, innovative work which could hardly be defined as ‘safe’. A business can often get more mileage from sponsoring a small company rather than competing for space on the crowded programme of, for example, the Royal Opera House. Sponsors have also been accused of being ‘London-centric’. However, recently many businesses have been looking to establish themselves within a particular town or region through a more community-based sponsorship.

Over the past few years there has been an explosion in the number of sponsorship awards such as Barclays New Stages, Prudential Awards, Sainsburys Awards and the Digital Dance Awards. These serve the dual purpose of publicising the sponsor's name and supporting the arts. Playwriting competitions usually require a script for the panel of ‘experts’ to examine, a problem for a mime and physical theatre company producing devised or non-verbal work. Wayne Pritchett of Mimescope solved this by submitting a narrative description of his work to the LWT Plays On Stage Competition. Although the work was not a finalist LWT were impressed by its originality. If mime and physical theatre were to move further into the mainstream the ‘experts’ on the judging panels would be more familiar with these artforms.

Sponsorship will remain a growth industry as long as businesses perceive it is to their advantage. Gone are the days when arts organisations could soak up the money whilst providing very little in return. Sponsorship is now a business enterprise rather than an act of ‘goodwill’. Sponsorship is a dirty word for some who associate it with losing artistic control and allowing the government to abdicate their responsibility to fund the arts. However, most sponsors do not wish to impose artistic terms upon a theatre company, in the same way they would not expect to be told how to run their business. The harsh fact that we must come to terms with in the 1990s is that in a world of rapidly diminishing government subsidies, sponsorship is here to stay. The responsibility of all arts organisations is to recognise this as an opportunity, not a threat.

A useful source of information is the Directory of Social Change, an independent charity which works to promote company giving in a variety of ways. It runs many courses for charities including how to raise money from industry, how to use the media, and produces a range of guides and publications.

This article in the magazine

Issue 5-1
p. 4