Turning business into an art form

Around a decade ago, the worlds of art and business rarely collided. Or even colluded for that matter.

Generally, the only time business dipped its toes into the art world was via philanthropic businessmen’s donations, which were few and far between. But all that has changed. Arts sponsorship is the new rock n’roll for the corporate world. Or at least it is for the more progressive of businesses. Where before galleries scrambled to squeeze a meagre donation out of business, companies are now falling over themselves to throw money at art.

You only have to glance at the members hip list of Arts & Business – the matchmaking organisation for donors and museums – to see how popular sponsoring art is. The organisation boasts a list of 350 of the UK’s leading companies, with Barclays Bank, BP, Bradford & Bingley and Guinness among them.

Unfortunately, its donors are already reining in their expenditure. For the financial year 2001-02 business investment in the arts amounted to £111m, a dip of 3%. Still, it’s a phenomenal amount when you consider the current economic circumstances, and that in 1976, the year Arts & Business was founded, business investment in the arts was only £0.6m.

Even in this difficult economic climate companies are proving their loyalty to arts’ sponsorship by putting their money where their mouths are. ‘Companies like JP Morgan have said “no” they’re not going to stop funding us,’ says Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts & Business.

The popularity of arts’ investment lies in the fact that it sets a business apart from competitors by giving the sponsor a particular image; one that says high brow and community spirit.

The days of ramming people into a hotel room for a reception where clients are made to chat ‘informally’ with business partners are fading. Nowadays, a more sophisticated channel of bringing clients and partners together has evolved. ‘It’s easy to get people into a room to interact, but that’s not what we want to do,’ says Nicky Major, head of sponsorship at Ernst & Young. Big Four firm E&Y began sponsoring the arts in 1994. It has since sponsored some of the UK’s largest exhibitions, many featuring works unseen by the public.

Rivals KPMG, PwC and Deloitte & Touche all have policies in this area. PwC is involved in a number of regional theatre and opera sponsorships.

However, the firms haven’t been able to bag such high profile exhibition sponsorships as E&Y. The firm has again led the pack this year, sponsoring the much-awaited Art Deco exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum.

By all accounts, it had to compete to get the sponsorship. Indeed E&Y has been fortunate enough to have sponsored some of the UK’s biggest exhibitions, such as Monet in 1999 and Matisse and Picasso last year. According to Major, the firm’s policy in this area has proved incredibly fruitful, not just in bringing clients and partners closer together. The firm extends the benefits of arts’ sponsorship to the whole firm, giving each employee two free tickets. It also organises family workshops, talks and guided tours for staff.

Major says the firm’s policy on arts investment has had a positive impact on staff retention levels and morale. She says: ‘It’s fun and educational and it’s a way for E&Y to give something back to the family. It’s a way of helping to redress the work/life balance.’

Besides raising a company’s profile among communities not commercially involved with a particular company, it is increasing its attractiveness to investors and potentially lowering the cost of capital. Added to this, socially responsible reporting is becomingly increasingly popular among the most high-profile companies.

Indeed it may soon become enshrined in law if updates to the operating and financial review – a narrative report of non-financial data with the aim of forecasting future performance – are written into a modernised company law regime.

Although E&Y, nor any other company, is not forthcoming with figures on their exact investment in arts’ sponsorship, the firm assures it is definitely value for money, in terms of generating new business, ensuring low staff turnover and high morale. ‘We measure what we do in terms of meeting objectives. We can measure perceptions of brands and we do research into our guests’ opinions,’ says Major.

A&B’s Tweedy backs this: ‘E&Y has told us it’s their most effective marketing policy. It raises so much fee income through entertaining at such events. And arts are cheap compared to other forms of marketing and advertising, such as sports.’

The importance for businesses in raising their profile is quite apparent, but it is now even more crucial for the art world. The collapse of the former Big Five firm Andersen was a massive loss. Tweedy bemoans: ‘We lost one of our best sponsors in Andersen.’

Next year’s results will be the litmus test for businesses’ dedication to funding the arts, and contributing to communities. Tweedy is steeling himself for a further drop in donations.

‘When times are as bad as they are it’s not a time to be asking for money. So every argument has to be used to engage business,’ he says.

Tweedy adds: ‘In many ways it’s too early to feel the impact of the current economic climate and this makes the role of Arts & Business even more crucial. We must continue to prove how business investment in the arts can be good for business, the arts and the wider community.’

But Tweedy is aware of how easily business investment could slip away, especially as the recession bites deeper. ‘The danger is the arts will be sidelined by the number of conflicting demands on the corporate purse. Our challenge is to embed the arts into corporate life and open that purse. To do this we must prove that the arts can make a business better,’ he says.

– To find out more about the Art Deco exhibition, go to

– To get involved with Arts & Business, visit

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