The blossoming of corporate arts support

If the arts, with all their power to accentuate and clarify, to explore and criticize, to teach and persuade, to stimulate and enhance, were left entirely reliant on government, not only would the pluralism of the arts be imperiled, but that of our social structure itself. W. H. Krome George, chief executive officer, Aluminum Company of America

Through the 1970s into the '80s, the upward march of corporate arts support continues.

What emerged as a lively duet in the mid-1960s - when business bankrolled the arts to the tune of $22 million - has crescendoed into a fully orchestrated symphony: $506 million in 1983, and growing. If there is a trend for funding in the '80s - with a burgeoning number of artistic mouths to feed - it is a push beyond the Fortune 500 set to smaller and more regional companies.

Although there will probably never be a rise as meteoric as the twentyfold increase between 1966 and 1983, the 1984 corporate-giving climate, with exceptions, is still bullish, with support blossoming. Eighty-nine percent of 160 major national corporations have increased or maintained their 1983 level of support to the arts during 1984, according to a recent survey of members conducted by the Business Committee for the Arts (BCA).

''Our members tend to be the barometer for corporate support throughout the country,'' says Judith Jedlicka, president of the BCA, a national, not-for-profit organization of business leaders that tracks such trends.

This quiet revolution in the relationship between arts organizations and business - considered shaky at best 30 years ago - has come from the realization by corporations that underwriting the quality of life in their communities is not just savvy public relations, it's an investment in the human resource upon which every business draws. ''It is a matter of enlightened self-interest for business to support the arts,'' says Winton M. Blount, chief executive officer of Blount Inc., an Alabama-based international construction company. ''And it is a matter of good corporate citizenship. But most of all it is a matter of making our community a better place to live for those of us who take great pride in calling it home.''

The same BCA study showed that 41 percent of 160 companies have increased support, 48 percent remained the same, and only 6 percent have declined for economic reasons.

And just yesterday, a yearly study of 503 major US companies was released by the the Conference Board Inc., a New York-based management information service, showing that arts and culture held their own as beneficiaries of corporate contributions among the other kinds of recipients (such as education and health care). The arts received over 11 percent of this total giving - which itself grew by 7 percent last year, to an estimated $3 billion.

But at the same time, many observers voice alarm that corporate support is not keeping pace with demand from the multiplying number of cultural organizations themselves. These must fight skyrocketing production costs and compete for corporate generosity with human service organizations also looking to fill the gaps behind Reagan administration funding cuts. On top of this, 1982 drops in tax rates for higher-income people have meant fewer incentives for them to make tax-deductible donations. This has resulted in reductions in charitable giving from individuals - which still accounts for nearly 80 percent of contributed income to the arts.

Though the astronomical rate of gains of the '70s has leveled off, spokesmen for orchestras, museums, dance groups, theaters, and public television generally report a climate of increased business giving in recent years. Much of that, they hasten to add, can be attributed to more-professional fund-raising techniques developed by cultural institutions in the wake of cuts in governmental subsidies.

''The organizational energy that is invested in fund raising is greater than it's ever been,'' says Catherine French, chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League. ''The stakes are higher, the need is greater, the competition is greater, and therefore you do see stepped-up development efforts all the way around.''

''Corporations are doing a good job at being responsible and responsive,'' says Tom Birch, legislative council to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. ''But I've watched many a corporate leader testify before congressional committees over the past few years saying they can't keep up with demand.''

In 1965, the year before the National Endowment for the Arts was formed, there were 58 symphony orchestras, 27 opera companies, 22 theaters, and 37 dance companies eligible for endowment funding. This year 192 orchestras, 102 opera companies, 389 theaters, and 213 dance companies applied for NEA support.

Although President Reagan's announced intention of halving the $158 million NEA budget never materialized - eventual cuts were only about 10 percent the first year - a trim is a trim, observers say. Especially when demand and costs are going the other direction. And they point out that the endowment's relatively modest grantmaking capability is valuable primarily as a catalyst to attract corporate matching support. It is also symbolic as a voice of national leadership. ''It's very hard to get corporations to follow, if the government doesn't show the way,'' grumbles Peter Zeisler, director of the Theatre Communications Group.

If the story has been well told - of corporate white knights helping to rescue the arts from government funding cutbacks, recession, and inflation - there is a new chapter for the mid-'80s: smaller, regional companies getting in on the act.

''Now most of the national companies have their arts support programs pretty well figured out,'' says the BCA's director of national programs, Gregory Pierce. ''The major ones give a certain, built-in percentage of income (usually 1 to 5 percent) to the arts.'' A 1982 BCA study found 80 percent of all business giving coming from companies with annual sales of $50 million or more.

''But the other people who are now really beginning to see the value of arts support are the small and medium-size businesses - the more regionally rather than nationally based businesses,'' Mr. Pierce says. The push for support beyond the Fortune 500 is a direct result of the still minuscule portion that business as a whole contributes to the arts: only around 7 percent. So now, add stories such as these to the Mobils and Exxons that shell out huge sums for ''Masterpiece Theatre'':

* A group of San Antonio business leaders realized that if the city were to compete with growth communities like Dallas and Houston, it would have to develop a stronger cultural life. The San Antonio Business Committee for the Arts was formed in 1980 to ''educate, motivate, and recognize business support and participation in the arts to improve the quality of life.'' Membership grew from an initial 35 companies to 150. Arts support has grown from $200,000 to more than $2 million in four years.

* The Barnett Bank of Jacksonville, Fla., parlayed a 1979 investment of $175, 000 ''Billboard Arts'' program to support Florida artists into a full-scale, multi-discipline arts program, which has become a catalyst to more business support for the arts in Jacksonville.

* With help from the President's Committee for the Arts and Humanities, the California Community Foundation and Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce are developing a model in which small and medium-size businesses can use community foundation staff to start a giving program of their own. ''A lot of small companies are poised to do something significant but don't know how to go about it,'' says Joseph Krakora of the President's Committee. ''In many instances, community foundations can provide a mechanism in that way.''

What the BCA and the President's Committee are telling businesses is the same as what mega-corporations have already learned: Business support for the arts helps the local economy; helps tourism; helps attract and keep good employees and first-rate executives; helps the city attract new businesses; helps with employee-customer relations.

One model example for the 1980s is Barnett Bank of Jacksonville. When the company decided to renovate its downtown office building in 1979, president Michael A. Walters, an art-lover, purchased some contemporary paintings to go with the bank's new look. As other branches were renovated, the idea expanded into a corporate arts collection that would ''take art to the people.''

A new mayor had great interest in the arts. The local arts assembly had purchased an old movie theater and was enlisting businesses to help renovate. The symphony was gearing up, the museum was talking of moving downtown. As Jane B. Jordan, assistant vice-president for community affairs, puts it: ''People were beginning to stop thinking of Jacksonville as a sleepy town in the north of Florida and realize we could compare favorably with Tampa and Miami.''

Barnett Bank wanted to lead the parade. Ms. Jordan describes the initial investment of $175,000 for a program to buy works of local Florida artists as taking the community by storm. ''A project like this by a bank was totally out of left field,'' she says. ''Nothing like this had ever been done before we did it.''

Enlightened self-interest?

Bank leaders say the move was partly a business decision, partly philanthropic, a little bit of community service, and a dash of quality-of-life improvement. The total Barnett program that has evolved now includes painting competitions, a pop-symphony series, and a cash awards program - all associated with the company name.

''With a captive audience of 2,000 people listening to the symphony and staring at our logo, we found the pop concerts a much more cost-effective way of reaching specific markets than general advertising,'' Ms. Jordan says.

Perhaps more important, Barnett wanted to help the cultural institutions develop new audiences that would continue support and to spur other businesses into attempting similar programs. ''I've had half a dozen other banks call and ask about starting campaigns similar to ours,'' says Jordan.

The Barnett case also points up a trend in cultural support by business in the '80s - the end of checkbook philanthropy.

''In the old days it used to be the Andrew Carnegie philanthropist who made all this money and then gave it away. But with the modern corporations, that doesn't exist anymore,'' says Pierce. ''The people who run these corporations are not the original founders, or necessarily the owners. They are corporate managers and they are responsible to their boards of directors and stockholders, so they have to justify their support.'' One of the ways is to prove that it is good for business to be involved with the arts. This increasingly close relationship of business to the arts is seen by some as everything from subversive to downright dangerous: For the purist as well as the avant-garde, the corporate motive of ''enlightened self-interest'' is viewed as an effort to co-opt or threaten certain aspects of the artistic vision.

Peter Zeisler, director of the Theatre Communications Group, says this danger manifests itself in the lopsided support that has hurt the world of experimental theater.

''Support for theater has always been way behind the other art forms because the theater is so controversial,'' he says. ''Symphony orchestras and art museums don't raise hackles, and corporations that support the arts for publicity reasons or goodwill are not going to put money into something that might offend patrons or clients.''

His and others' concerns are that bleaker and bleaker funding prospects from government are forcing theater groups into producing works that are going to be popular as opposed to work that is important. ''At the same time, the ticket prices go up, so that whole segments of a community can't attend the theater,'' says Zeisler.

And there is concern about the new competition for corporate goodwill, in which cultural development staffs must practically jump through hoops to attract the corporate dollar. Larry Reger, director of the American Association of Museums, voices his concern: ''There is no question that a lot more resources and time are going into getting the money we need to run our museums. There is the danger that, with the leadership of the museum, the board of trustees, and the director and principal staff so consumed in simply raising money, they don't have time to do the necessary planning and implementation of programs.''

Whatever the dangers, it is clear that the age-old debate over whether business should be giving money away to the arts is waning, if not dead. In 1979 , corporate donations to all causes surpassed foundation giving for the first time ever, and the trend, says the BCA, has continued every year since. Says Diane Gingold, formerly of the NEA's Challenge Grant Program, now with her own arts research firm: ''Arts organizations are becoming less wary of the corporate dollar and corporations are becoming more aware of the arts organizations' needs and problems.''

Says Anna Arrington, program officer of the Atlantic Richfield Foundation, ''I think that in the '70s the operative term was corporate responsibility, good citizenship. I think now, for a lot of us, frankly, it's a habit.''

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