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Roberta Comunian argues that traditional views on the benefits of arts sponsorship to business have been far too limited, as demonstrated by some recent collaborations in Italy.

Photo of the Illy Biennale Cafe
The Illy Biennale Cafe at the Padiglione Italia, Venice Art Biennale 2009.

Renzo Giusti (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When talking about corporate sponsorship, researchers often refer to its historical origins, such as Maecenas's support for artists in Rome or the Medici family's contribution to artistic production during the Italian Renaissance. While the practice undoubtedly has a long historical tradition, my recent research highlights how the practice of business investment in arts and culture has evolved and how contemporary approaches are breaking new boundaries.

Historically, the emphasis was on how sponsorship and support for the arts can increase both the number of patrons and a corporation’s visibility – generating goodwill towards the organisation or its brands. Throughout the last few decades the arts have increasingly been the focus of marketing efforts for many companies trying to improve their image, particularly tobacco or oil companies. A recent debate on the Tate’s website highlights the controversial nature of such sponsorship deals.

Arts and culture play a heightened role in a world where goods and services are sold more on the basis of their aesthetic, social and symbolic value

There is evidence of new ways in which companies benefit from investing in the arts, where art and culture become a significant component in the commercial value chain of the post-industrial, twenty-first century economy. Up until now, companies have tended to think that the main benefits of sponsorship are an enhanced reputation and a growth in clients or customers. However, as we move from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, I would argue that arts and culture play a heightened role in a world where goods and services are sold more on the basis of their aesthetic, social and symbolic value rather than their function or usefulness. Sponsorship of the arts allows corporations to connect with clients, customers and everyone else through an emotional path that fits with peoples’ identities and lifestyles in a way that conventional advertising cannot. It also allows them to think about new products and ideas, and deepen their knowledge not only about consumers’ behaviour and preferences but also about creative and technical boundaries in product development. It can can also have an impact on relationships with staff.

Company areas and functions impacted by arts sponsorship:

Public relations


Involvement in public arena, lobbying and networking, media coverage, reputation, networking and hospitality Promotion, point of sales, advertising, brand and image, product design and brand values Social image of the company, business citizenship, participation in urban renewal and community regeneration
Product Innovation and R&D Human resources
Creative industries, cultural products and products diversification Product innovation, creativity, research and design and artists in residence Involvement of the management, arts-based training, access to culture for employee, quality of work environment, participation and higher commitment

What we start to realise is that there are different areas in which arts sponsorship can impact a company, as shown in the table above. However, while it is possible to find many examples involving the arts on ‘externally’ faced activities, it is more challenging and interesting to explore examples of ‘internally’ facing collaborations, particularly in supporting innovation, product research and finding new markets.

One such example, which shows sponsorship of the arts can lead to real improvements in business performance and new knowledge, is the collaboration between illy Caffe and Venice Biennale. At each Biennale a space is created in collaboration with renowned artists, designers and other cultural forces, each in tune with the atmosphere it populates. The research from this collaboration directly influences illy’s knowledge of audience behaviour in relation to relaxing, taking a coffee and having a break in their visit to an exhibition. At the same time, illy’s work with contemporary artists has also been the focus of a new range of products being placed on the market, such as their limited edition coffee cups and coffee tins.

Another interesting example of creativity and R&D is Fabrica, a communication research centre of Benetton Group that every year hosts and supports young creatives from around the world to engage in social campaigns, art and communication. Another is the Targetti Sankey Group, a lighting design company which has supported its training and HR development practice firstly through the Targetti Light Art Awards (an international, contemporary light-based art competition) and a Targetti Light Art Collection, Foundation and Academy.

The reach and depth of these examples highlight that our understanding of the way in which companies build relations with the arts and cultural world is very limited. Many studies have looked at the marketing implications but have not really expanded on the larger impact of these activities on overall company strategy and results. The competitive advantage and competitive strategy framework provides a new perspective on the issue and highlights how the different ways in which businesses collaborate and build relations with the arts can be understood as an integral part of the company's activities.

It is important to consider a common business practice such as business support of the arts within a larger understanding of our socio-economic context. While such practices can be dismissed as simple philanthropy, they can also have a strong connection with the competitive strategy of a company and be a source of competitive advantage, particularly in a new economic era where aesthetic, creative and symbolic values are attached to goods and services.

Roberta Comunian is a Lecturer in Cultural and Creative Industries at King’s College London.


Comment from Deborah Bull

In an era when corporate partnerships are increasingly important to the survival of the arts and yet under greater scrutiny, Roberta’s research promises to be invaluable to anyone looking to make the case for – or prove the value of – this kind of sponsorship. Far from being the preserve of marketing or CSR departments, it demonstrates how appropriate partnerships can have a positive impact on every aspect of a business.

While Roberta looks specifically at Italian corporations, the applications of her research are international. Sponsorship of the arts can lead to real improvements in business performance. The paper refers to illy and its use of artists and architects to shape product design but the company also opened a gallery space in New York for a short time to showcase work they had commissioned (and serve visitors coffee), and more recently their approach to artist support was strongly endorsed by Marina Abramovich during her residency at the Serpentine.

This article and the short summary on CultureCase are designed to provide an entry point into Roberta’s research for arts and cultural professionals. As I never tire of saying, the plural of anecdote is not evidence – academic research can inform and improve decision-making and strengthen the case for the arts. CultureCase is designed to make that research accessible to those people who can benefit from it the most.

Deborah Bull is Director of Cultural Partnerships, King’s College London.

This article is a summary of research prepared for CultureCase, a new resource from King’s College London to allow the sector to access academic standard research. A copy of the full academic article is available. Some of the research of Dr Roberta Comunian has been recently included in the Arts Sponsorship Toolkit produced by Business and Arts South Africa.

Image of Roberta Comunian
Photo of Deborah Bull