It began with Chevron Oil plunking down $10,000 to support the San Francisco Symphony in 1926. Recently, corporate arts funding in the United States has provided such diverse experiences as Mobil Oil's ''The Forsyte Saga'' and ''Reilly, Ace of Spies'' on Masterpiece Theatre; Continental Illinois Corporation's ''The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art''; McDonald's sponsorship of the Spoleto Festival USA, or McSpoleto; Atlantic Richfield's backing of the Dance Theater of Harlem; and Security Pacific National Bank's show on ''Urban Sculpture: Architectural Concerns.''
''Business funding of the arts has been the big growth area, certainly in the last 20 years,'' says Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The statistics would show that you had an enormous takeoff starting about 20 years ago,'' he says, right up to the present. ''Some that come to mind that I think have been of particular importance have been things like the Exxon conductors' program: You find a corporation looking at the art form as a whole and seeing a need that cross-cuts more than one organization, and then tries to provide money to fill it. There certainly was a need for young conductors to get the chance to cut their teeth with a variety of orchestras.''
Businesses tend to identify with arts projects that have a ''concrete result to them,'' like a production or a specific tour or a 100th anniversary year, Mr. Hodsoll suggests. ''No, they're not funding poems, generally speaking. There may be a corporation somewhere funding poems, but that's very rare.''
Mr. Hodsoll relaxes on a contemporary couch in the NEA offices high in the towers of the landmark Old Post Office Building here. Late-afternoon sun glinting through white shutters hits the Mies van der Rohe and Breuer chairs and vivid modern paintings on the walls.
Should there be even more of a national subsidy for the arts, Hodsoll is asked, to parallel Britain's National Theatre, the Canadian Film Board, and the Comedie Francaise? ''Well, I don't think we can ever in this country get to the stage of having a ministry of culture which becomes the primary subsidizer,'' he says. ''The reason I don't think that is, that puts too much power in one place in terms of support of the arts, and too much power in one place inhibits freedom of expression.''
He points out that NEA's statute specifies that support of the arts is primarily a matter of local, private initiative. He also points out that the US is the only country in the world that gives a substantial tax reduction for philanthropic purposes and suggests that when that is taken into account the US compares favorably with European countries that subsidize the arts handsomely.
But he points out too that the majority of corporations do not give to the arts - contributions tend to come primarily from large corporations, rather than small and medium-size ones. He also notes that corporations are a relatively small percentage of the total support for the arts. ''If you look at the total contributed income for the arts, that is the private sector - which is 83 percent of the contributed income - you discover that of that 83 percent only about 10 percent is corporations. The vast majority - 80-plus percent - is from individuals.''
For that reason he rejects the possibility that corporate contributions could exercise any undue control over the direction or shape of the arts. ''That is not to say that some individual artists, knowing that there is a corporation over here with a particular taste, might not paint a picture that they feel would look good in the lobby or organize a concert that they feel would be appealing to someone in the corporation. That happens. But they might do that for the National Endowment or Mr. Smith who wants to put some money into something. So that's not unusual from a corporate point of view.''
Businesses have had a special channel for contributing to the arts since 1977 , when the NEA's Challenge Grant Program began. In it, for every dollar the government provides, a minimum match of $3 is required from private sources. Since then more than $150 million has been provided by the government for matching-grant funds - which has generated more than $1 billion in contributions from the private sector. According to Hodsoll, this has meant business has been giving a whopping $7 to $8 for every dollar the government has given. In 1984 alone, 47 major arts organizations will receive challenge grants - all under the aegis of the Office of Private Partnerships, which now directs the endowment's Challenge Grant and Advancement Programs.
Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D) of Illinois is perhaps the foremost champion of the arts in Congress, as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Business subsidy of the arts, Mr. Yates suspects, might affect the choice or tone of specific arts. ''Business rarely is willing to undertake subsidization of a program that is challenging or innovative or out of the ordinary. My experience is that business tends to support artistic endeavors that present a good picture of the business. And that I think is as it should be, because they have a responsibility to stockholders. So the relationship is one that fosters the arts and at the same time serves a very useful purpose for business.
''The one example that comes to mind where business tried to do something that I think was unfortunate - and I would say subject to criticism - was when Mobil tried to persuade the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to cancel its showing of the film 'The Death of a Princess' (a program) which tended in my judgment to put the Saudi government in an unfavorable light. Fortunately, CPB said it would not give in to their request and showed the film.''
The chairman of the Congressional Caucus on the Arts, Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D) of New York, says he supposes the arts are being adequately funded now, but he has reservations. ''I would like much more, and think the money could be well spent, to increase the (federal) arts budget by a 5 percent rate, after inflation, every year. The money could be consumed nicely and spent effectively.'' Mr. Downey says that, in light of the annual cutbacks the administration proposes, it has not been helpful.
He suggests that dance groups and other arts groups with travel budgets have suffered from lack of financial support in the last year and that some theaters ''have had a very rough year. We've had a number of theater groups come in repeatedly telling a tale of woe. There's still not enough money.
Downey believes there is currently an ''appropriate mix'' of private and federal money for the arts. But he points out that when the federal government gives less for the arts, the business community does less, too, because of the system of matching grants at NEA. ''The big corporate givers have very sensibly and creditably managed in terms of their donations not to create any conflicts between their giving and the arts,'' he says.
Or as Frank Hodsoll says of business and the arts, ''I'm bullish on all this.''