Refining an image: big oil and fine art

Names once associated with the corner service station -- names like Exxon, mobil, and Chevron -- now are linked more and more conspicuously with museum exhibits, symphonies, quality television series, and other "high brow" cultural events.

At the prestigious Guggenheim Museum of Art in Manhattan, few visitor's eyebrows went up in noting that the recent exhibit, "British Art Now: An American Perspective," was bankrolled by Exxon Corporation.

Big oil underwriting of the fine arts and Public Broadcasting Service productions has become as prominent in the last few years as the industry's enormous profits.

The reaction of at least some people involved in the arts toward this alliance of oil and culture is ambivalent.

"I find myself grateful that they do what they do, but uncomfortably," says Barbara Krakow, the proprietor of the prominent Harcus Krakow art gallery in Boston. Her comment reflects those of others in the art world who are increasingly conscious of the contributions of big oil.

"I see programs that don't seem to get support from any other source," she says. "But, on the other hand, I see myself, as a member of the community, infuriated that these companies are reaping huge profits and taking an infinitesimal portion of these profits to buy an image."

Doris J. O'Connor, a vice-president of the Shell (Oil) Foundation, says: "There's been a big growth in the last 10 years in business support of the arts." She points out that sponsoring cultural events has come to be viewed by business as an investment in the community, and that it also produces indirect economic returns.

An improved corporate image is one such return for big oil companies facing deteriorating credibility over the last decade and often blamed, justly or not, for recent energy crises.

Support of the arts, especially in communities where the companies have plants or offices, is believed to build a favorable association in the public mind between "big oil" and cultural events. The living rooms of many arts enthusiasts are decorated with trendy posters commemorating exhibits or PBS television series sponsored by Exxon or Mobil. The posters usually bear the company name.

Contributions to the arts are, of course, tax deductible. So is much of the advertising oil companies do for events they sponsor. Thus, a newspaper ad by a corporation publicizing a PBS show it sponsors and also publicizing the corporation as patron of the arts, is tax deductible. In effect, that cuts the cost of the ad roughly in half.

Exxon supports conductorships for teh symphonies of several major cities, including the National Symphony in Washington. These grants often are matched by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Oil companies, principally Mobil and Exxon, supply about one-eighth of all PBS programming costs.

Major museum exhibits, such as the recent one at the Guggenheim, often are sponsored entirely or in part by oil companies, as are many neighborhood concerts.

"We feel it's our duty to bill [display] the name of the sponsor of an exhibit," says Jack Frizzele, public affairs director for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "We're very grateful for their contribution."

A spokesman for Exxon sums up the attitude of the oil industry: "We are pleased to identify ourselves with quality."

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