Crunch time for business sponsorship of the arts

Cuts to funding of the arts threaten to sweep away corporate support in its wake and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Sitting on the desk of culture secretary Jeremy Hunt is a document detailing the draconian budget cuts that the Arts Council England (ACE) will have to make in the wake of Chancellor George Osborne’s stringent autumn spending review. Among them, I’m told, is a proposal that will effectively destroy the most successful private and corporate fundraising vehicle for the arts to date.

When Arts & Business (then ABSA) was set up by its chief executive Colin Tweedy 27 years ago, there was very little private funding of the arts.

Today, corporate and private philanthropy is running at about £655m a year; according to A&B’s own estimates that figure will reach £1bn by 2016. Of course, A&B itself is directly responsible for only a fraction of that total – currently something like £50m. The principal importance of the organisation has been as a conduit and a catalyst, tirelessly promoting sponsorship of the arts to businesses and wealthy businessmen.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. Surely, when the state is reducing its patronage so drastically, we need more – not less – help from those promoting the arts to the private sector? It’s suicidal to propose shutting down the main state-sponsored conduit.

Well, yes and no. At one level, what ACE seems to be proposing is perfectly logical. Given the inevitability of deep cuts, the main body must protect the head, even if it is at the expense of some of the limbs. Many satellite quangos will face the axe; A&B is simply one of the more prominent ones. Some in the arts community, like National Theatre executive director Nick Starr, would go further and suggest that A&B is a prime target for cuts precisely because it already receives substantial support from the private sector: it is capable of fending for itself when many other arts institutions are not.

About 45% of Arts & Business’s funding in England (the vast majority) does indeed originate in the private sector. But subtract the 55% that comes from taxpayers and the Lottery via the Arts Council, and the organisation – which has 12 offices and employs more than 70 people across the UK – would have immense difficulty surviving in anything resembling its present form

What the Starrite tendency says is true up to a point, but also disingenuous – masking as it does visceral animosity within parts of the arts community towards the very concept of private funding and what they see as the harmful, contaminating influence of business culture.

This clash of ideologies is succinctly summed up by Tweedy himself: “The Arts Council sees us as an arts organisation. We see ourselves as a private initiative. We cannot advise on the arts unless we fully understand business culture. Some see me as part of the problem, not the solution.”

There are, in short, those who would like to get back at Tweedy simply because of who he is, and what he represents.

And here’s their opportunity. About 45% of A&B’s funding in England (the vast majority) does indeed originate in the private sector. But subtract the 55% that comes from taxpayers and the Lottery via the Arts Council, and the organisation – which has 12 offices and employs more than 70 people across the UK – would have immense difficulty surviving in anything resembling its present form. An added problem is that private funding tends to be conditional. Many donors like to practise what the Americans call “challenge funding”, meaning they will only give money if it is matched by a similar sum generated elsewhere (in this case, by the taxpayer).

Piling on the agony is the fact that A&B’s fate has been left in a kind of limbo. No one is saying how, and when, the cuts will be applied, nor whether there will be any transitional funding to help downsize the organisation – if indeed that is an option. At least, not to Tweedy – who must act circumspectly if he is to avoid alienating his main paymaster.

All of this is not to suggest that corporate sponsorship of the arts would suddenly grind to a halt if A&B vanished from the face of the earth. Tweedy may be among the best-known arts administrators, but he is not unique. A fair number of specialist consultancies and PR firms have sprung up to service that need in the near 30 years he has been in business.

On the other hand, the scope and purpose of A&B is far from confined to sponsorship brokering. It also provides a free headhunting service for companies seeking to give young high-fliers diversified business experience by placing them as non-executive directors on arts boards. A good case in point is Chris Gibson-Smith, who used to be a middle-ranking executive at BP. He has since gone on to be chairman of National Air Traffic Services (NATS), a director of Lloyds Bank and chairman of the London Stock Exchange. It’s not just businessmen either. A&B also places promising young politicians, in an effort to give them wider experience. A recent example is Rohan Silva, now a senior adviser to David Cameron, who was put on the board of the Battersea Arts Centre.

More experimentally, A&B has forged links with companies like Unilever and business schools such as the Saïd in Oxford in an effort to inject more emotional intelligence into management strategies and staff relations.

This is the kind of thing – a highly unusual confluence of arts, business and politics built up over many years – which will almost certainlyevaporate if A&B is shut down.

The golden age of arts funding – during which an unprecedented flow of money from the National Lottery supplemented the private initiatives created during the Thatcher years – is definitively over. Whatever replaces it will be meaner and bleaker. All the more reason, then, not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Stuart Smith is consultant editor at Marketing Week.


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