In Western Europe, government picks up more of the arts tab
Seventeenth-century Amsterdam merchants tried to achieve immortality by commissioning portraits from Rembrandt and Vermeer. The first opera by a German composer was presented by 18th-century Leipzig businessmen.Skip to next paragraph
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Hamburg merchants once built theaters for the city - and wrote many of the plays staged in them.
The roots of corporate patronage of the arts in Europe run deep. But when it comes to support of the arts today, the Medicis of most West European countries are not corporations but governments.
While there are signs that the role of corporate cultural funding is growing in Canada and some European countries, the pattern of patronage remains primarily one of direct support from the central government. This is in stark contrast to the United States, which some observers claim is entering ''the decade of corporate patronage.''
Two underlying forces have helped shape the different approach in Europe:
* A tradition of direct government support for public institutions, the arts included, whose roots go back centuries. Many of the royal houses of Europe in the 17th Western Europe and the arts tab century, for instance, tried to outdo one another by setting up world-class cultural centers in capital cities throughout the Continent.
* The absence of hefty tax incentives - at least when compared with the US - for corporate philanthropic giving in most countries. Some incentives do exist, of course. A few nations, in fact, have created some unusual subsidies. Ireland, for instance, doesn't tax artists' earnings. In Norway, the entire spectrum of artists, from authors to filmmakers, receives some direct government funding.
In the United States, with its tax breaks, there is more funding from private sources. The effect has been a broader - but not necessarily more generous - base of support for American groups.
''The base of support in the United States is relatively unique,'' says Harold Horowitz, research director for the National Endowment for the Arts. ''Every country has its combination of direct and indirect (tax-generated) support. In the US, there is more emphasis on the indirect.''
But interest in finding patrons other than the government may be growing in foreign countries. One sign: the growing number of organizations being set up to boost corporate cultural spending. Groups similar to the New York-based Business Committee for the Arts now exist in six countries - Australia, Canada, Britain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Two other committees - in West Germany and Belgium - are in the process of being formed.
A punishing worldwide recession, meanwhile, has done nothing to help the level of corporate funding in many of these countries. In Canada last year, companies chipped in $33 million in support of arts and cultural groups. The pattern of funding is similar to that in the US - the top 1 percent of Canadian companies gave 50 percent of the donations.
In Britain, companies last year spent some $22 million on arts sponsorship. British officials say that's probably up over the year before - but not as much as it would have been if corporate profits weren't so pinched.