Corporate support of the arts is not a new idea in this country. What is new about this support is the visibility corporations are getting for their support. It used to be that a company would be satisfied with a line in the corporate-support lists, or perhaps a tiny mention on the second program page. Nowadays, companies are becoming aware that not only are the arts good for the community, they're good for business. As Charles Croce, a vice-president and director of cultural communications at the N.W. Ayer advertising agency, puts it , ''There is a move away from pure philanthropy into more of a marketing approach. Ten years ago, (corporate arts funding) would have come out of the philanthropy budgets; now it's coming out of marketing moneys.''
AT&T may have been the catalyst in this new scenario. When it began its ''Orchestras on Tour'' program in '79 (continuing its uninterrupted 40 years of consistent underwriting of arts programming), AT&T proved to a curious corporate world that it was possible to send an arts organization out of its usual region and gain many public relations points, not to mention local in-house prestige.
Receptions, dinner parties, and the like could be planned around a visiting orchestra's concert. It was possible to buy choice seats to those concerts and entertain prospective clients. The AT&T logo, in tandem with the local Bell affiliate, gave the company visibility and credibility among the culturally attuned - who, more often than not, made up the market many corporations were looking toward in the first place.
Well, now the idea has caught on. Unfortunately, divestiture forced the abandonment of AT&T's remarkable program (and orchestras are touring far less today). Now it underwrites ''AT&T Presents Carnegie Hall Tonight,'' a nationwide radio program. But other corporations have picked up the banner of promotional giving, although in markedly modified fashion.
Local involvement is also now very much the order of the day. As examples, one can cite several projects. Citibank has been a key sponsor of New York Philharmonic tours since 1970 - trips to South America, Mexico, Europe, Asia. Isuzu has committed itself to the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season. Chicago-based Beatrice Foods has chosen the Lyric Opera of Chicago as the linchpin of its cultural promotion, not only by generous support of the season, but by the underwriting of the annual nationwide radio broadcasts and this year's taping of Tchaikovsky's ''Eugene Onegin'' for future PBS telecast. Merrill Lynch is sponsoring recital and concert series through something like 25 orchestras across the land.
Judith A. Jedlicka, president of Business Council for the Arts Inc., heads an office that steers interested businesses, large and small, into exploring the arts as a promotional venture. She maintains that corporate giving has always been strong but that now there is a more conscious effort to focus into areas that will give the company more visibility. ''The corporations's first concern is the area in which it operates. There is much more of a sense of partnership now of marketing and advertising dollars in the arts, and that is making them more visible to the public.''
Albert K. Webster, managing director of the New York Philharmonic, speaks specifically about Citibank, but his comments have general validity. ''Our partnership suits their purpose, which is sales, profit, image, etc., for a bank that is after the clientele attracted to a concert, or is flattered by being invited to a concert or to a reception before or after a concert. It's just good business, and that has been the most important aspect, as I judge it, of Citibank's support of the Philharmonic.''
The Merrill Lynch aims are similar, although the means of achieving them are rather different. Michael Wall, a Merrill Lynch vice-president who is also manager of the Special Events Department, observes that ''large corporations that have branch-office systems are constantly being accused of making money in cities, then taking that money out of the cities.'' Merrill Lynch's project is an attempt to show that it supports the communities in which it has offices. Mr. Wall states that the program boosts employee morale in the city and it gives Merrill Lynch visibility in a section of the community with which it wishes to curry favor. ''As, more and more, the private sector has to support the arts, many of the cultural institutions are realizing they have to do more for the underwriting organizations. These series give visibility and the chance to meet socially with the business, social, and civic leaders in the communities, which has advantages for us.''
In Los Angeles, Isuzu is breaking into the classical market by way of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ernest Fleischmann, executive director, explains that Isuzu is a new name in this country, ''particularly for passenger cars. They're getting access to just the sort of market they are trying to reach - namely our audiences! We obviously have the right demographics.'' So far, the corporation has given an Impulse-model car as one of the raffle prizes; it is supplying a fleet of cars to the orchestra in Florida on this season's Isuzu-underwritten tour; and a booklet about the Philharmonic and Isuzu is being distributed at every concert on the tour. Mr. Fleischmann says, ''We are very conscious of the need to make the connection known in all sorts of ways.''
Ardis Krainik, Chicago Lyric Opera's general manager, declares she is ''very pleased that Beatrice has seen fit to make us the focal point'' of a new campaign to change its image. She notes that Beatrice also used the Olympics to introduce the new corporate image.
The Beatrice-sponsored radio broadcasts ''make a great difference in the perception of our company,'' Ms. Krainik says. She also cites the major support given by Beatrice to the company in its TV efforts; first it was the segment Chicago Lyric contributed to a Maria Callas tribute in 1983, then the taping of Tchaikovsky's ''Eugene Onegin.'' ''The nation's perception of us, and the community's, is highly enhanced by television viewing.''
Beatrice is beginning to expand the range of its commitment to Lyric Opera; Isuzu is in the first year of what Mr. Fleischmann hopes will be a long-term partnership with the L.A. Philharmonic. Mr. Webster is emphatic about the advantage to the New York Philharmonic from the Citibank connection: ''It has allowed us the ability to plan forward in a way we've never been able to before. We can actually plan tours because of that support.''