Fuel Your Growth Or Ignite Your Destruction?

Thomas Cott’s recent round up of stories raising questions about whether arts organizations should accept funding from energy companies which are poisoning the environment through oil spills and hydraulic fracking reminded me of the semi-controversial sponsorship of dance by Altria.

I haven’t been able to find it online, but some years ago there was a feeling that the relationship of tobacco giant Altria, neé Philip Morris, to dance was a little unseemly bordering on co-dependence due to the fact that dancers often resorted to smoking to curb their appetites and maintain their desired weight and figure.

They supported a great number of arts organizations, including Lincoln Center, but had a particular affinity for dance. It might have emerged as an issue in the wake of the anti-corporate sentiment of the Occupy movement last year if Altria hadn’t withdrawn their support of the NYC dance scene a few years back when they moved their headquarters to Richmond, VA.

Altria still provides support for the arts, a theatre in Richmond will be named for them in 2013, but their profile of support isn’t as visible since they have left New York.

It does raise the question about what elements should factor into a decision to accept corporate sponsorship or not. Many times corporations provide the sponsorship to bolster their image in the community. At the same time, an arts organization will be concerned about how the image of the corporation reflects on them in the community.

A theatre in Virgina or North Carolina will probably worry less about how their community will react to them being sponsored by Altria than those in NYC since tobacco has a long history in those places. But then Altria may have less incentive to provide sponsorships in those communities in order to bolster their image.

There is also the funding source to consider. Is there less of a stigma associated when Altria’s employees are directing where the funding goes?

This isn’t about Altria. You can substitute the name of an oil company for Altria and oil rich states like Alaska and Texas for tobacco growing states and the situation will be about the same.

In fact, with the stories about how big banks are mishandling money and putting the screws to people over their mortgages, accepting money from banks in some places may not endear you to the community. And since your community is in poor financial straits, banks may be the only significant source of funding enabling you to provide free and low cost services to the self same community.

Given all these factors, it may be wise for arts boards to draft policies and procedures for assessing sponsorship and donation opportunities which may arise.

If you are thinking these issues don’t really matter or don’t feel you even know where to start in developing criteria to evaluate opportunities, you may want to take a look at the blog post by Chris Garrard that Cott links to. There, Garrard addresses what he sees as the weakness of statements like: “But the arts sector needs the money…”; “But historically, the arts have always taken money from big business or sponsors… Why should things be any different now?” and “If we engage more people in the arts to learn about life and philosophy, then that has to counteract issues with where the funding came from…”

I am not necessarily saying Garrard is completely correct. His responses are highly idealistic. But these are all issues that need to be considered.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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