Tom Manson, a Kansas City, Mo., contractor, reflects for a moment on what motivated him to put $40,000 worth of new roofing on the eccentric, Palladian-style Folly Theater.

''I'm the type of person,'' he says, ''that feels if he's been rewarded by a city he should put something back into a city.''

In 1974, Mr. Manson read a newpaper article about a local group that was trying to renovate the old Folly Theater in downtown Kansas City. Some years back, when the Folly was a legitimate burlesque palace, he had visited it. Over the years he had grown fond of the building.

Knowing the roof was in terrible shape, Manson volunteered to build a new one. Renovation complete, in 1981 the Folly reopened as home to 20 nonprofit performing-arts groups and sundry jazz and dance troupes.

Manson has promised to keep the Folly's roof in good repair for the rest of his life. He is now on the theater's board of directors.

''I feel that it is the responsibility of all business people - but especially of contractors - to show the public that we can contribute, too,'' he says. ''It is not just the Fortune 500 companies that should give to the arts.''

Reciprocal relationship

As with Tom Manson, philanthropy often stems from the individual motives of business people. Those motives can include everything from sentimental attachment to a particular art form and genuine public-spiritedness to calculated self-interest.

Regardless of motives, however, business donations to the arts - currently $ 500 million a year - yield both better community standing for the business and a better community in general.

But the relationship between business America and artistic America is not simply one of patron and patronized. It is a reciprocal arrangement. True, giving to the arts promotes a business' image, but it also helps it to keep good employees. It improves the community that houses its assets, and it ensures a continual source of new, creative ideas to be used in the commercial sector.

Many companies support the arts because executives or their spouses also serve on the boards of museums, symphonies, operas, and theaters. Then there is the marketplace consideration: Many companies support the arts because their customers support the arts.

Beyond that, there is a growing acknowledgment of the link between the arts - museums, theaters, symphonies, dance troupes - and the quality of cultural life in the city, state, and nation in which the corporation resides. As Time Inc. chairman Ralph Davidson explains: ''Part of the strength of the symphony, the ballet, is that it feeds directly back into creativity, which the corporations can draw upon.''

In a city like New York, where congestion, pollution, and crime can be serious drawbacks to employees, the vitality of the arts helps balance out those negative factors. A good cultural life is a way of attracting and keeping talented people.

Creative employees, Lincoln Center chairman Martin E. Segal contends, are not content with a sterile civic atmosphere: ''The people they meet and deal with are inspiring and interesting. They have to have the arts. They take a walk in a museum, and the beauty has a positive effect.''

Look at it this way, says Mr. Segal: ''Can you imagine people in the scientific or high-tech fields separate from music? Einstein loved music and played it. It was a sense of inspiration to him. Others depend on other arts - movies, for instance, which combine dance, writing, architecture, fashion design. There is an energizing concept that is caught from the arts.''

Mr. Segal notes that ''a less obvious reason for corporations to support the arts is that corporations understand that a society in which positive things occur is good for the corporation.''

Judith Jedlicka, president of the Business Committee for the Arts, notes the ''multiplier effect'' of a strong arts program in a city: It brings in tourist dollars, employs people, and improves the tax base. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimates that the arts bring $5.6 billion a year into that metropolitan area. Growing corporate involvement

From a historical perspective, the growing involvement of corporations in underwriting the arts in America seems to be as it should be. The corporation, after all, is the primary public entity in modern America - just as the church was the primary force and benefactor in the medieval world, the Medici and the Pitti families in Renaissance Florence, royalty in imperial France and England, and the individual captains of industry in 19th-century America.

A corporation is a citizen in both the social and the legal sense. Good citizenship means promoting that which is good in society.

It was not always so, however. Until 50 years ago, judges had been ruling in favor of stockholders who challenged corporations if their philanthropy strayed from the narrow goal of advancing the interests of the corporation. In a widely quoted 1953 court case, however, the New Jersey Supreme Court swept away the concept that a corporation's charitable contributions had to have a ''direct benefit'' on the business. Subsequent court rulings expanded corporate freedom to donate.

Still, executives remain well aware that the giving ought to be fairly modest and uncontroversial, lest stockholders become displeased by the channeling off of profits that would otherwise go into dividend checks. Generally such giving amounts to 1 percent of corporate profits, although arts promoters are trying to increase that amount to 5 percent. Current federal law allows corporations to deduct up to 10 percent of profits that are donated to the arts and other charities.

''In recent years, corporate giving has broadened,'' observes Landrum R. Bolling, former head of the Council on Foundations and one-time director of the Eli Lilly Endowment. ''Today there is a very strong view that a corporation should give to help the community in which it and its employees are based.''

With the removal of legal barriers to corporate philanthropy, Mr. Bolling notes, the major variable that remains is the corporate profit picture: ''Giving is tied to profits. A dip in profits causes a dip in contributions.''

Even so, the drop in corporate profits during the 1981-82 recession did not mean a drastic drop in corporate donations. That was forestalled, Mr. Bolling believes, by a widespread concern in the business community about the Reagan administration's intentions to slash the National Endowment budget.

''If government were to withdraw from support of the arts,'' says Mr. Segal at Lincoln Center, ''corporate support would not necessarily meet all the needs. Besides, corporations and corporate executives pay taxes - quite high taxes - and they want those taxes to go not only to sanitation, roads, and defense, but also to the arts.'' How business uses the arts

One doesn't have to look far to see how business taps the creative wellsprings of the arts for commercial purposes.

Bloomingdale's in New York sells cosmetics accessories replicating the collection from the Museum of American Folk Art. Marshall Field in Chicago uses the Chicago Symphony as a theme for its sales catalog. The Sun Company advertises its oil equipment with a ballerina in the foreground. Themes of high fashion constantly draw on designs that come from artistic movements.One can see this in current clothing styles that echo artistic movements, from down-home American regionalism to new wave.

Piet Mondrian's two-dimensional color patterns inspired a generation of advertising and publication layout artists. Motifs from Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, and Bridget Riley recur in clothing patterns, neckties, floor coverings.

Coming full circle, the ubiquitous designs of the commercial world - the Campbell soup can, for example - have been popularized by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Many a restaurant or bookstore today pipes Brandenburg concertos or Strauss waltzes through the sound system. Department store display windows may show the influence of the surrealistic, neoclassical, or romantic art movements.

The architecture of city buildings - once the purview of a select few civic leaders - today is a source of concern, delight, or dismay to a wide section of the public, if one is to judge by the pervasiveness in American newspapers of news about historic preservation, urban redevelopment, and architectural quality.

Without business funding of the arts, American cultural life would be the poorer. Time Inc. brought the treasures of Alexander the Great to most American cities. Philip Morris sponsored a tour of the Vatican's art. American Express is one of the most active patrons of the arts worldwide. It has sponsored tours of the treasures of Tutankhamen, El Greco of Toledo, and an Henri Cartier-Bresson photo retrospective, and has underwritten a new production of Mozart's opera ''Cosi Fan Tutte,'' which made its debut last Saturday. Amex's innovative matching-gift program - under which donations are made based on use of the company's products and services - acts as both a national and a local funding source for the arts.

Then, of course, there is the visual entertainment that corporate-funded television programs bring. ''Great Performances'' (Exxon), ''Live From Lincoln Center,'' and the many thoughtful series on the Public Broadcasting Service - from ''Nova'' to ''MacNeil/Lehrer'' - are made possible, as you have heard on the blurbs, in great part by grants from corporate America. Virtually all of the major oil companies give in this manner - so much so that PBS is sometimes kiddingly referred to as the Petroleum Broadcasting Service.

There is little doubt that corporate America today is taking the place of the federal government - and of the individual Rockefellers and Carnegies of this country - as the primary benefactor of the arts. Corporations give three times the amount the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts gives; in 1983 the NEA gave $125 million. That largess has just weathered the toughest recession since the 1930s.

Although the federal government contributes through non-NEA channels to museums, especially the Smithsonian, corporations also contribute substantially through back doors: expertise in accounting, personnel management, and public relations that comes when business executives are appointed to the boards of artistic institutions; a host of donated ''in kind'' services, ranging from data processing to direct-mail fund-raising skills. A sometimes tricky relationship.

Not everyone is happy with this increasingly close relationship between corporate and artistic America. The artist Christo has eschewed corporate funding and criticized colleagues who take it. Some avante-garde artists shun corporate involvement in the arts as a bourgeois attempt to co-opt and subvert the sometimes threatening aspects of art. They recall the censorship of Diego Rivera's mural at Rockefeller Center.

Such a controversy, of course, not only makes some artists skeptical of business people, but also tends to make businesses leery of approaching too near the cutting edge of art, drama, dance, and even music. Businesses go to great lengths to avoid unpleasant publicity.

But the arts are a wide field, and for the most part they are less controversial than social philanthropy. Moreover, censorship such as that of the Rivera mural is tricky business. It doesn't play well in the press, and most corporate public-relations specialists know it.

"I don't know how other things go," says former New York Times art critic Howard Taubman, who has advised the Exxon Corporation on its funding of the arts for the past 11 years, "but with Exxon we've done some very controversial drama; we've done Wagner's 'Ring,' and some tough ballet. At no point have I heard of anybody at Exxon interfering with 'Great Performances.' In fact, Exxon has stood firm while some PBS stations were nervous. Exxon and Mobil and other large corporations are proud to be associated with high-quality art."

So is roofer Tom Manson of Kansas City.

"All business people should support the arts," he says. "You can buy season tickets, advertise in programs, or donate. If we do that, our arts will continue to grow."

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