CORPORATIONS AND THE ARTS; Big business as the new Medicis?

The venerable novelist might squirm a little today. After years of strained overtures, the arts and business communities are breaking into a lively duet. Art works are increasingly showing up in corporate board rooms, cafeterias, and factories. Dozens of firms are backing the revival of tottering downtown cultural centers across the country. And corporate largess is being used to stage everything from Matisse exhebitions to marching band festivals.

For the arts world, this Medicean spirit may be coming none too soon. Everyone from the street-corner poet to the granitetombed museum curator is fidgeting about paying future bills.

Already buffeted by inflation, arts programs face lean years ahead as a result of likely cutbacks in government funding of the arts. The Reagan administration's austerity drive includes slashing the $158 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. Congress will soon vote on exactly how trim the NEA should be, perhaps reversing more than a decade of growing federal patronage of the arts.

What's more, the recently signed US tax laws may cut into individual giving to the arts and other nonprofit groups -- their chief source of sustenance. Reason: A drop in tax rates for higher income people gives them less incentive to make tax deductible donations.The Urban Institute, in a recent study, estimated that individual donations over the next four years may drop off $18 billion.

Many arts leaders see corporations as the great white knights for their programs. But can business come to the rescue? And will local benefactors and community action take up the slack from government cutbacks, as the Reagan administration hopes?

Probably not. Yet it is likely that the link between business and the arts will tighten in the years ahead. Between 1967 and 1979 corporate giving to the arts jumped from $22 million to $436 million. Even after inflation, donations rose 54 percent from 1976 to 1979. On top of that, in 1979 corporate donations to all causes surpassed foundation giving for the first time ever.

Still, as donors, companies remain dwarfed by the total from individual givers. About 84 percent of all nongovernment philanthropy comes from individuals, compared with 5.3 percent from corporations, and 5 percent from foundations.

In addition, half of all corporate money given to the arts comes from 1 percent of companies. Some big givers are urging their corporate brothers to chip in more. One of them is Dayton Hudson Corporation, the Minneapolis-based retailing giant. It is a member of the now-famous "5 percent club" -- 45 Minneapolis-St. Paul area companies that annually give at least 5 percent of profits for community projects. (Spinoffs from the idea have popped up in at least six other cities.)

These pin-striped patrons are evidence that the age-old debate over whether business should be giving money away at all may be waning.Less frequently does a corporate chieftan have to go eyeball with an angry stockholder to justify funding the local library or fife-and-drum corps.

Many still believe the business of business should be business, without one penny for "social responsibility" or the community chest. Troubadors of business giving, however, point to a long history of corporate philanthropy, at least for the arts. Besides the wellknown Medicis of Florence (patrons of Michelangelo and Donatello) and the Maecenas of Rome (patrons of Horace and Virgil), there were the Fuggers of Germany and the Merchants of Hamburg, the latter of whom not only built theaters but also wrote plays for them. The United States has had its Carnegies and Rockefellers and Mellons. Today, the giving of alms from the boardroom can sometimes be cold corporate strategy rather than just personal patronage by a wealthy aesthete.

Just the same, operating the treasury chest means facing a deluge of requests from any number of nonprofit groups.

At the Polaroid Foundation, for instance, executive director Marcia Schiff gets mail dropped on her desk twice a day. A foot-thick manila folder sits in one basket, the result of just a few day's mail (most of it funding proposals have increased," she says. "I'm learning how to read very quickly -- without an Evelyn Wood reading course."

Just how the arts will stack up against pleas from hospitals, schools, and welfare groups remains uncertain. But when the corporate charity checks are signed over the next few years, arts groups will likely receive their fair share.

One reason may be the growing stature of cultural organizations themselves. Corporations often give to groups because it will help the business -- or at least appear to help them -- as well as the group being funded. The return may come in the form of community goodwill or an improved image. Some corporations, in fact, are finding that dollars given to a big cultural institution may bring more visibility than those pledged to a university where the "dollars tend to get lost," as one company official put it.

"For the first time, contributions to the arts are seen to be good for business," says Thomas Wolf, executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts. "They are not handouts anymore."

When New York's Citibank put out $300,000 to help send the New York Philharmonic around Europe last year, they also bought blocks of tickets for each performance for Citibank employees and their customers. It turned out to be a "big door opener" for reaching people they otherwise might not have been able to, as well as a morale-booster for overseas employees, says assistant vice-president Elizabeth Howland. "You acquire a certain amount of dignity when you get associated with a first-class cultural institution," she adds.

To be sure, many companies also believe that support of the local museum or orchestra benefits the community, which can only benefit them. "New York would be a pretty grim place if you didn't have your Lincoln Centers and Mabou Mimes," says Leonard Fleischer, Exxon's senior adviser on arts programs.

Giving today is also done less through the personal interest of a top corporate executive -- an opera buff directing his charity toward the local opera company -- and more by layers of corporate committees. Business schools seem to be turning out more freshfaced graduates with an eve for Matisse and an ear for Hindemith (although some artists beg to differ). Some argue the average "cultural level" of executives is higher today than in earlier generations. Whether true or not, the public's interest in the arts is growing, and so is its pressure on the corporate conscience to see that local museums and theaters stay open.

"There is a burgeoning interest in the arts and the business community sees this," says Edward M. Strauss Jr., president of the New York-based Business Committee for the Arts Inc.

More companies are also matching employees gifts to the arts.While the practice has long been followed for worker donations to colleges and universities, it has only been more recently that companies have matched employee giving for cultural activities. Today more than 100 companies have matching programs. Many match dollar for dollar, like Exxon. But some give two-for-one (Atlantic Richfield Foundation) or even three-for-one (Time Inc., up to $3,000 a year).

In the future, one of the fastest growing areas of corporate giving may not involve direct dollars at all, but "in-kind" services.Dozens of companies now denate computer time, office space, or savvy business management to charitable groups. One example: The Karmazin Products Corporation, a Wyandotte, Mich., manufaturer of air-cooled industrial radiators, buses youngsters four times a year to hear the Detroit Symphony's children's performances.

Seattle business people are volunteering time to help out local arts groups with marketing, fund-raising, and bookkeeping under a five-year-old program initiated by the New York Arts and Business Council Inc. Such "skills-bank" programs are gearing up in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Houston as well.

Despite this seeming flourish of philanthropy, however, the corporate world's overall record on nonprofit giving is far from kingly. Of the more than 2 million corporations in the country, fewer than 30 percent make any charitable contributions at all, and these tend to give an average of 1 percent of taxable income (although money also comes out of promotion and advertising budgets).

Getting more out of donors may prove to be about as easy as conducting with a sculling oar. In today's less-than-robust economy, some businessmen complain that now is not the time for huge giveaway programs.

The real untapped resevoir may be the hundreds of small-and mid-sized companies that now don't give at all. This is one group targeted for pump-priming by President Reagan's specially appointed Task Force on the Arts and Humanities -- an ensemble of business, arts, foundation, and academic leaders. The group is juggling several tax ideas to spur more giving.

"What we have to do is broaden the base of corporate giving," says Daniel J. Terra, Mr. Reagan's ambassador at large for the arts. Yet many see little chance of any task force-initiated tax measures surviving a budget-weary Congress. One key to the charity drive may be the President himself. Some are urging him to trumpet personally the case for volunteerism, although other argue it would be "beneath the presidency" to do so.

Beside patchy giving, corporations are often faulted for not straying far beyond their corporate backyards. What about the communities with no big industries?

Many artist worry about corporate censorship or "control" of their work. But , contends Alvin Reiss, director of an arts mangement program at Adelphi University, businesses today are "smart enough to know that if they try to exploit the arts, they will get egg on their face." More worrisome may be what happens to the first when the corporate spigot turns off, perhaps due to an economic slump or the decision of a capricious executive. Leonardo da Vinci himself once complained that the "Medici have made me and broken me."

Others would like to see more funds going to the avant-garde artist instead of conservative, safe institutions and big-drawing exhibitions (the "King tuts").

The arts face other problems as well. They are inherently inefficient and labor intensive: poems and paintings are crafted, one at a time. No new electronic marvel is going to come along and reduce the number of strings in a symphony (musicians hope!).

Today the country is riding a crest of cultural activity. Since 1965, the number of symphony orchestras and opera companies has doubled, theater troups more than quadrupled, dance groups multiplied 10 times, and the number of community-based arts groups has shot from 150 to more than 2,000.

All of which helps explain the current economic dilemna: More groups are chasing a shrinking pool of funding. Ultimately, the survival of the arts will probably depend on what they know best -- rsourcefulness and creactivity."Easy money isn't there anymore," sums up W. Grant Brownrigg, executive director of the American Council for the Arts in New York. "Groups are going to have to become more self-reliant, more ingenious."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.