The business-arts partnership: a two-way street

IN San Diego, the symphony cuts short its regular season, and in San Francisco, the opera gives up on summer performances; in New York, an unseemly dispute among museum officials, political leaders, and a private donor makes a notorious battlefield of the otherwise unnoticed Museum of the American Indian. Museums, orchestras, dance companies, theater troupes, and cultural organizations of all types throughout the United States seem to be in financial straitjackets from which even Houdini would have trouble extricating himself. Private donations have failed to offset federal cutbacks and rising costs.

As a business executive with an interest in the arts, I am supposed to extol the virtues of nonprofit cultural activities and exhort my fellow executives to increase their level of charitable giving. A growing number of top US corporate leaders have been making that plea for the past few years, and with good reason. But arts managers who receive their financial support are almost uniformly silent about what they can - and should - do in return.

It is the modern US tax code that has put corporate contributions to the arts on the same philanthropic footing as donations to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army; centuries ago, the relationship between patron and artist was considerably more businesslike. Today, economic necessity has again focused the attention of arts groups and donors on some of the more practical aspects of their relationship. Arts organizations tacitly acknowledge this when they establish a variety of donor benefits in exchange for the corporate dollar.

While philanthropy remains a partial motive for the corporate gift, its frequent origin in the corporate marketing, advertising, or public relations budget makes clear its presumed value as a corporate investment. The literature of even such forward-thinking groups as the Business Committee for the Arts Inc. provides example after example of business benefits from partnerships with the arts. And arts institutions, competing for funds along with a growing number of social welfare charities and even municipalities, have found it lucrative to emphasize the distinctive benefits to the corporation of the corporate-arts connection.

State and local government support for arts and cultural activity has been on the upswing, too, and again, arts groups are quick to cast the support not as a donation, but as an investment in the community's economic well-being. Publicly constructed and operated arts centers in cities as diverse as Denver; Tulsa, Okla.; and San Jose, Calif., now rival publicly constructed and operated stadiums.

There's nothing wrong with this working partnership; it offers significant benefits to each party - when it works. But while arts groups are quick to remind corporations and local governments of their obligations and responsibilities in the partnership - particularly when it comes to guaranteeing the artistic integrity of the project being funded - the obligations of the arts organizations frequently go unspecified.

If arts groups are to deliver on the promises they make to business and government, they must design their programs, exhibitions, and activities not only for their traditional audiences, but also for the public that the corporation seeks to influence, as well as for the taxpayers who ultimately supply the public subsidy.

This means exhibitions and performances must provide a public service while retaining high artistic standards. Arts activities and the educational and public programs that accompany them must be designed to attract and stimulate diverse new arts audiences, including young and old, working people, families and schoolchildren without patronizing them.

And arts groups need to work closely with their public and corporate partners to ensure that the cultural offerings are adequately advertised and promoted to the new audiences. This can be a touchy area, for the promotional interests of arts organizations and corporations overlap but do not fully coincide. ``Selling'' the public on a corporate-sponsored exhibition is not the same thing as selling the public on the corporation, although it's a valuable tool toward that goal.

The effort is worth it for arts groups, though, for in fulfilling the promises of their partnerships with business and government, they will achieve their long-term goal of building a solid constituency.

And a growing number of communities throughout the nation are making these tripartite partnerships work. The festival of new American plays held in Louisville, Ky., would do New York proud; it also brings millions of dollars into the local economy. Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., have produced national reputations for arts excellence.

These cases do not arise at random; dedicated leaders among each of the three partners - business, arts, and government - must be committed to working together in the interest of an enriched cultural climate that can benefit all. And that leadership, too, is growing, spurred in part by such groups as the National Arts Stabilization Board and its local counterparts in such cities as Boston and Seattle. Our cultural heritage is indeed rich, but the legacy we give to our children has the potential to be far richer yet.

Mallory Factor, a trustee of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and vice-chairman of the board of the Roundabout Theatre, also heads an international public relations and investor relations firm in New York.

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