James Mackenzie-Blackman explains how international corporate sponsorship can be a useful way for arts organisations to get out into the world
International work and corporate sponsorship are two things in our sector that often remain elusive for most of us. It’s complicated, time consuming and full of unknowns. And yet, somehow, at the National Youth Theatre (NYT) we have found ourselves doing both of these things, together, through our partnership with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). The partnership between our two companies originated at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, when a company of 14 actor-musicians from NYT was invited to perform at the UK Pavilion as part of its cultural programme and SAIC, as one of the Founder Sponsors of the UK Pavilion, identified a strong match with its brand.
China is an extraordinary country. I visited with a company of talented NYT members in December 2010. I was overwhelmed by the rate of growth, the willingness to do business with the West and the attitude and respect for theatre and performance made differently to the traditional Chinese theatre we know and revere.
SAIC is one of the fastest growing automobile companies in the world, and is buying up well-known car brands across the globe. When MG-Rover famously went bust here in the UK, SAIC bought the brand and set about remodelling the MG into something modern, British and contemporary. It has relaunched the brand to the Chinese market and its marketing department was keen to celebrate the ‘Britishness’ of the MG in Asia. Who better then than NYT to work with the company to create performances to promote the new MG? This is how it started.
When SAIC first approached us, we asked ourselves some hard questions about China’s human rights record and the attitude towards the country here in the West. We decided that the best way to decide whether or not to work with SAIC was to ask our membership. We surveyed more than 3,000 NYT members and asked them if we should have a corporate partnership with a company in China. We laid out clearly what the partnership might look like and agreed internally that if the members said “no” we wouldn’t go. They said “yes” overwhelmingly, and since 2010 we have returned to China several times with NYT members.
To my mind, the benefits and challenges to NYT are fourfold. Firstly, we get to give young people an experience far removed from their everyday. There is something very special about watching a 17-year-old lad from rural Yorkshire back-flipping across a stage in front of 600 Chinese audience members and more than 100 press photographers. These trips become life changing for our members and we are very proud to be able to give them these experiences. Secondly, NYT gains financially. The total value of the contracts to date is worth in the region of £300,000 and more work is planned into 2012. Thirdly, we grow creatively and as a business. Having built trust and respect between the two companies we are now in discussion about SAIC sponsoring an international co-production between NYT and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, which will bring together young people from Great Britain and China in one production that we hope will tour both countries. This dialogue would not be happening if it were not for the two-way relationship and respect that has been built over the past few years. Fourthly and finally, it has meant we’re not in the dark now when it comes to international work or large-scale corporate sponsorship. It has allowed us to be brave and think big, to look beyond this relationship and think about where else in the world we’d like to work and how this work might be funded.
As a business, we continue to grow through the partnership. Chinese business is carried out very differently to business in the UK. From big strategic headaches like the fact that everything is paid for after the event to the fact that everyone we deal with in China likes to use MSN Live Messenger to conduct business – this felt really odd at the beginning but now feels quite normal. In NYT’s mission statement it says that we are as ambitious as the young people we serve. Our relationship with SAIC has certainly been ambitious. It has also been surprising, life changing for many and massively hard work – which to me are all the ingredients you need to make the best theatre.