The Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to end its sponsorship relationship with BP has been widely praised in our sector, but it has prompted a few thoughts about wider attitudes to sponsorship and funding in the arts.
We all have our own opinions of what’s a vice or a virtue. I imagine big tobacco and gambling companies or pharmaceutical giants might be jostling for space in most people’s league table of evil, but for someone who loves a cigarette, a flutter on the horses, and the relief of strong painkillers, they might not be such a bad thing.
Our current age has taken against the oil giants, BP chief among them. Are they part of the world’s problems or best placed to deliver green energy solutions? Despite many long associations with the arts, a noisy version of consensus has suggested the former. Vigorous and youthful protests have left our cultural leaders having to take a stand, which is tough because some of them have been getting very oily.
Our individual moral hierarchies shape how we make and spend our money. What need to guide the fundraising decisions of arts bodies are their own organisational values and strategy. These values – as expressed in missions, constitutions, charitable objects and strategies – need to have bite to be real. They need to guide recruitment, marketing, programming, casting, pricing, governance, office behaviours, investments, partnerships. Everything. Including sponsorship.
In a sponsorship arrangement, the arts sell reputation enhancement. In exchange for cash, the arts organisation launders the brand of the corporation, if only by association. It might come packaged with a few free tickets, a special event with a roped-off VIP area, but the main product is a cleansing corporate endorsement from a glamorous part of society. The more virtuous the organisation or its activity, the better.
There’s little justice in having poor people funding rich people’s entertainment
Poverty is often cited as a justification for taking dirty money. We’re all operating in constrained circumstances after a decade of austerity. Some more than others. The RSC has not been broken by cutbacks in the way that local authority and voluntary arts have. I’m not convinced by arguments that corporate sponsorship is a necessary evil in times of public restraint. You rarely hear people turning down offers in times of plenty, so this issue really isn’t about the state of arts funding but about the character of the money in question.
The RSC case invites a thought experiment or two. Consider this hypothetical scenario: is it preferable for an arts organisation to have oil sponsorship as part of a mixed private and public income package, or for it to righteously refuse thanks to a generous bequest from, say, a late but discreet and profitable arms dealer?
Money can get dirty in all sorts of ways. It’s hard to see how public subsidy gathered through regressive taxation is all that shiny clean. There’s little justice in having poor people funding rich people’s entertainment. Maybe you think gambling is a social evil and that the profits made at the expense of those down on their luck shouldn’t be funnelled into theatres or galleries. If either of those feel wrong to you, then look again at that Arts Council Lottery application.
James Doeser is an arts consultant and researcher. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/james-doeser