It is a common practice for corporations to sponsor well-established arts organisations. Michael Jaxa-Chamiec argues that they should devote more attention to the benefits offered by involvement in grassroots activities.
Sunday afternoon and you head for Tate Modern; partly to see the new Kandinsky exhibition, partly to re-acquaint yourself with the Gallerys formidable collections. You walk into the Tate and notice a surprise exhibition. This time it is not an abstract spatial installation but an exhibition of corporate logos. They are ubiquitous branding your admission ticket, the Gallerys walls, the toilets and even the multilingual information handsets.
It is hardly breaking news that big business has an affinity for investing in visual arts. This investment may take many forms. Some firms strive for maximum exposure of their logo in every highly publicised exhibition imaginable. Others adopt a more strategic approach, selecting the exhibitions that they can use for subtle brand realignment. A final group will simply buy art for corporate collections.
Whichever form it takes, sponsoring visual arts offers an unrivalled set of benefits to business be it publicity, impact on brand associations, boosting direct sales or, last but not least, corporate social responsibility targets. There also are other perks, notably enabling decision-makers to feel philanthropic and enlightened.
This is not a new phenomenon. Rulers enlightened monarchs or oppressive despots alike have been keen to associate themselves with the visual arts since antiquity. While this was in part motivated by a desire to be depicted favourably, the outward projection of enlightenment and philanthropy was invariably fashionable. This is, after all, how art patronage was born. Yesteryears patronage and todays corporate sponsorship may seem similar but one area where these similarities end is that patrons in the past often used their capital to project an unknown artist into the public domain. In contrast, a lot of todays sponsors want to buy in to pre-existing repute.
Corporations are, of course, commercial entities, primarily concerned with profitability and brand recognition, and supporting established artists and organisations is perceived to be most likely to bring about the desired returns. Yet, FreshMinds research in this area suggests that innovative sponsorship of new and independent art has the capability to yield valuable returns. This kind of sponsorship, however, requires todays sponsor to become more like yesterdays patron. While it may not be possible to align a companys brand with the connotations of the work of a well-known artist, partnering with contemporary, independent artists can offer the reversal of that process: companies and artists working together to create artistic pieces encapsulating the companys vision and values.
Companies should ask themselves: would they rather show their client a Picasso on a gallery wall with their logo nearby, or a tailored piece in their boardroom that underpins the story of the organisations creativity and individuality? The answer may depend on target audience and company sector. While a pharmaceutical research company may place more emphasis on organic, self-contained dynamism and creativity, a large professional services firm may opt for established grandeur. What is certain, however, is that there is no reason why the latter couldnt and shouldnt do both.
It cannot be denied that high-profile exhibitions attract large audiences. In fact, exposure is one of the most appealing factors behind logo-oriented sponsorship. But is it the numbers that really matter? An initiative by Starbucks is a case in point here. As a global brand with a mainly local customer base, Starbucks is keen to target local audiences. One such project is the partnership with Birmingham Education Service to provide exhibition space for local independent artists. An investment as simple as this can achieve strategic goals: being seen as a local company, attracting publicity and promoting an image as a grassroots brand that empathises with its customers.
Investing in big visual art should not be discouraged. The mere fact that firms compete for association is testament to its appeal, but companies should look for more innovative ways of engaging with independent arts. Engaging with grassroots activity is cost-effective, and also offers a comparable range of benefits. It enables targeting of local audiences, innovative brand realignment, and most importantly of all an injection of fresh, creative spirit into a companys operations.
Michael Jaxa-Chamiec is a Research Manager at FreshMinds, a research consultancy that works with public sector bodies within the creative industries.
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An innovative form of corporate support for the visual arts is illustrated in a long-standing relationship between industrial giant ICI and the London Disability Arts Forum. For four years now the work of deaf and disabled artists has been featured in year-long exhibitions at ICIs headquarters in Londons West End. Although the exhibitions are not open to the general public, hundreds of staff and international guests to ICI are able to view the artworks, which are placed in the corridors and rooms on two floors. Artwork from the ICI exhibitions can be viewed at http://www.ldaf.org