Business and the arts -- no strange bedfellows

Earlier this year Fortune Magazine, in an article called ''Keepers of Corporate Art,'' quoted one corporate executive as saying: ''To the corporation, art will always be a frill.'' The magazine itself then solemnly intoned: ''The priests of high culture walk a fine line in the corridors of commerce.''

I haven't met any priests of high culture in the corridors lately. That sort of talk is amusing, but also a little troubling. It helps perpetuate the myth that business and the arts are, somehow, strange bedfellows. We haven't found it to be the case at Mobil.

It has been our experience that a business can't escape the arts. If you build or buy a structure, pick a letterhead or a logotype, decorate a lobby or even a wall, you are moving into the territory of the arts. Almost everything you do in a business makes a statement about the sort of business and the sort of people you are.

Indeed the arts are a natural, inevitable ally for a successful business. They are partners, and very definitely un-strange bed-fellows. Businessmen are no more priests of high culture when they purchase a painting than barbarians when they purchase a truck or an oil rig. What they sense in the arts, I think, is that same vision of quality, that same search for an ideal of quality and excellence that imbues many of their business decisions.

Mobil, for example, wants to have the best lubricants not only because more people will buy the best lubricants but because of a natural human impulse to seek the best, to have a part in making the best, and in marketing it, and to know we have that part.

It's much the same in any business. Whatever you make or sell or service, some ideal of its excellence - what might be possible - has an influence on most decisions you make. You ask: how good can we make this product and still sell it at a competitive price, and, if we make it even better, how many customers would go with us to a higher price? And you are always asking: how can we get the very best people to be part of our organization, and how can we encourage them to make our company the best it can be? What that whole process consists in, one might say, is making an art out of your business.

And for that reason, it really shouldn't surprise people to see business moving from that sort of search to the exploration of the best ways of seeing, and hearing, and enjoying the worlds of the imagination. These, too, suggest what might be possible. But I think their special appeal to business is their reach: the way the arts take us out of our various, individual, and competitive companies into that parallel world where we can unite in enjoying some broader, common image or ideal.

Part of that enjoyment is seeing the creative human spirit at work - and trying to bring back as much of it as we can hold into our own lives, into our businesses, into our goals. The arts provoke us to abandon old or tired ideas, to break familiar patterns, to beware of becoming captive to routine. In the best sense of the word, the arts recreate our minds and thus refresh everything we do.

These forays we make into the world of the arts seem to bother some critics of business. They want the shoemaker to stick to his last, as though the arts were exclusive, something for others but not for us. But commerce and trade have almost always marched in tandem with the arts. Both business and the arts are ways of responding - highly individual ways of responding - to life as we encounter it, to the world around us. And both are infused by the same ideal of seeking the best.

So I say business and the arts are natural allies. In 1966, when David Rockefeller first proposed the organization that became the Business Committee for the Arts, his basic premise was that the modern corporation had evolved into a social as well as an economic institution. He said this evolution gave us the responsibility to help improve our cultural environment - and that meeting this responsibility would brighten business's public reputation and improve the corporate image. That's true.

Ten years later, another distinguished leader of business and patron of the arts - J. Irwin Miller of Cummins Engine Company - told the business sector he wanted to destroy the notion that we support the arts because it's good for our image. He argued that the arts, by helping us discover what our best might be in ourselves, our neighbors, our country, lead us to create a society that is very good for any business. I believe Irwin will maintain, to this very day, that public relations has nothing to do with support of the arts, even though his going around and saying such things gave his company just about the best public relations anyone could want. So it turns out that Irwin is right, too.

Just as arts programs vary, so do the reasons for them. Some businesses join in from a sense of social responsibility; others, from the desire to expand everyone's access to the best things in life, or to team with friends and neighbors in a worthy cause, or to demonstrate to their own employees the high purpose of their enterprise, or, perhaps, for the simple reason that being part of a bright and shining venture is excellent public relations.

In any case, when businessmen elect the imaginative, I believe their company is seen as imaginative. When they adhere to excellence and quality in the programs they support, the luster of that ideal will reflect on their own products and the way their company is perceived.

It never hurts to aim high.

Carl Sandburg writes in one of his poems about people ''reaching out . . . for lights beyond the prison of the five senses, for keepsakes beyond any hunger or death.'' And then Sandburg said: ''This reaching is alive.''

Perhaps he was describing the arts: ''keepsakes beyond any hunger or death.''

So when a business involves itself in the arts, it truly is ''alive''; it is a citizen as well as a business, reflecting for all to see what it is and the way it functions.

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