Sponsorship of the Arts – Where does the money come from?

Recently I read that the Tate group of British art galleries, which includes the prestigious Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London, will no longer be accepting any gifts from one of its wealthiest sponsors, the Sackler family in the USA, because their money comes from the sale of the contested prescription painkiller, OxyContin. This is a remarkable decision which gave me a new slant in my thinking about dependencies in the arts sector in general and sponsorship of the arts in particular.

Is the decision of the galleries a one-off exception or is it the first sign of a radical change?  

Public interest contra profitability

Museums are a relatively new achievement in the history of our civilisation. Up to the French Revolution, art treasures were mainly the private possessions of kings, princes and other members of the nobility who were the patrons of the artists of their time, commissioning them, paying them and keeping their works. It was only at the beginning of the 19th century at the time of the rising bourgeoisie that art treasures gradually began to be placed in state-financed museums where they could be viewed by the general public. This was a great step forward. 

Since that time the number of museums has steadily increased. And today, given the decrease in government funding, they are in intense economic competition with one another. Faced with the need for ever more capital in a time of drastic cuts to government subsidies for the arts, they find themselves caught in the “income-from-visitors” trap. Even though museums were intended to serve the public interest and not commercial ends, they find themselves constrained to follow the model of permanent growth. This has given rise to two key consequences. 

First of all, the trend to blockbuster art exhibitions whose stakes are high on the commercial art market. The operative principle here is that if it costs a lot it must be worth a lot and will thus serve to draw in the crowds. This trend means that there’s no room available for experimental concepts or lesser-known artists who don’t figure among the art scene’s galaxy of pop stars. The risk of making a loss on an exhibition is simply too great for the museums to bear. 

The second consequence following on from the first is that in their efforts to finance such crowd-drawing exhibitions, many museums welcome donations by rich private individuals and companies with open arms. 

Money has no smell – or does it?

Now you might be thinking that money has no smell so it doesn’t really matter where it comes from. And if it serves a good purpose like keeping works of art in museums or restoring Notre Dame, then there’s nothing wrong with it and in fact such sponsorship it’s really both cheap and effective.  

And in fact for a very long time nobody was interested in where the money for the sponsorship of the arts came from and what type of consequences such sponsorship entailed. It’s only now that people are beginning to take a more critical look. 

Take, for instance the group of activists who, drawing on the famous “To be, or not to be” from Shakespeare´s Hamlet, call themselves “BP or not BP”. They are investigating the sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Museum by the BP oil corporation, and in particular attempts by the oil giant that have now come to light to exert influence on which special exhibitions should figure in the programme of the British Museum.

In the case of the Sackler family, the protest is directed at the fact that their sponsorship of the arts amounts to a “whitewashing” of the money they earn through their morally dubious pharmaceutical business. 

And in mid-April when a fire seemed likely to destroy Notre Dame cathedral and part of the cultural heritage it contained, this triggered not only a universal wave of dismay and consternation but an unprecedented outpouring of donations from the richest families in France. In next to no time a staggering 800 million euros was donated. Undoubtedly this is of tremendous benefit to the badly damaged cathedral. And yet it prompted a wave of indignation from the French people. What is at the root of such discord?

Autonomy and diversity are at stake here

In a pluralistic society based on democratic principles, the question of the autonomy of institutions dedicated to the common good is of primary importance: only a sufficient degree of autonomy can ensure genuine diversity and encourage innovation – works not streamlined to swim with the current of the times but which might be contentious or thought-provoking. This is beneficial to an open society.  

At the end of the day, this kind of sponsorship of the arts can only prevail because the public coffers are too empty to allow institutions to act freely, independent of such support. 

There are many reasons for acts of generosity

All too often the fabulously rich can slip their obligation to contribute to the common good of society in the same unostentatious and altruistic way as the rest of us do. With their voluntary donations they make good on this obligation and by doing so also appear as benefactors. 

Now to avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me add that it would be disingenuous and pure speculation to deny that sponsors have any true feeling for art and culture. Even so, the question of the ends served by many an act of generosity is still a valid one. Whether by a company or an individual, sponsorship is always a form of advertisement and marketing which in most cases comes in combination with an alluring write-off or tax relief scheme. This is perfectly legal and indeed from a corporate standpoint even desirable. 

So without wanting to venture further into the broad field of museum financing in particular, and the arts and humanities in general, I would say that we really do need to take a much closer look at where the money for our cultural life comes from. I for one at least hope that the move taken by the Tate group of British art galleries will not prove to be a onetime event but a laudable example that in similar circumstances deserves to be followed.