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.

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.

Overseas companies that dig into their pockets usually do it for reasons different from those of US companies. Because of the lack of tax breaks, giving is considered more of a marketing than a philanthropic exercise. It's not unusual for the cultural donations to come out of company's advertising and marketing budgets. The idea is that something is given - but only because there are definite paybacks, usually in the form of corporate goodwill or a buffed-up image.

''There's no nice, soft, compassionate streak in us,'' says Jane Glazer, administrator of Britain's Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts. ''Companies do it as a business activity.''

With US companies, the lines between charity and advertising are also becoming blurred. Adopting more of a European approach, many companies are now boldly trumpeting their underwriting of cultural groups.

Many US companies with overseas branches, for their part, do give to local arts groups - but the generosity doesn't run very deep. ''On the whole, the picture of multinationals giving abroad is pessimistic,'' says Pamela Walker, executive director of Arts International, an advisory group in Washington. ''Very few companies have international arts as part of their agenda.''

She cites several reasons:

* Many companies haven't been contributing very long in this country, not to mention overseas.

* There are no tax incentives abroad.

* Businesses overseas often don't get the public-relations credit when they underwrite something - a name splashed prominently on a brochure, for instance - that they do in the US.

Multinationals that do give abroad, however, do it in much the way they give in the US. Some grant money outright. Others give by matching employee contributions to the arts or service organizations. Cultural groups don't necessarily get the lion's share of the corporate philanthropic dollar, though: Overseas, as in the US, health, education, and welfare often snare the bulk of the largess.

A recent survey by the Washington International Arts Letter, a financial-oriented arts newsletter, showed that some 80 US multinationals operate employee matching programs in overseas countries. Of those, roughly 10 companies matched worker contributions to cultural groups. The rest directed their giving more to such causes as hospitals and schools.

Why bother to give in overseas countries at all? Mainly for the same reasons US companies give money at home: good public relations, and because many believe that it is part of their ''social responsibility'' as ''good citizens of the community.''

''It is enlightened self-interest,'' says Daniel Millsaps, editor and publisher of the International Arts Letter. ''If they've got a plant overseas they want to keep employees happy by giving them status in the country.''

Nor does giving do anything to hurt a company's image - although few explicitly say they give for that reason. In some foreign countries big multinationals are viewed with suspicion - outside powers that exert too much influence in a country's internal affairs. Might giving to the arts soften the bogyman image?

''My guess is if there is any resentment against a corporation, giving to the arts is not going to quell that,'' says Leonard Fleischer, senior arts adviser at Exxon, whose foreign subsidiaries last year gave $2 million to museums and arts groups. ''The issues of multinationals run much deeper than that. It obviously can't hurt. But how much any goodwill might help we don't know.''

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