Arts Programme, BBC Radio Scotland, 6/6/03
Discussion on Corporate Sponsorship of the Arts
As someone engaged to take a critical stance on the corporate sponsorship
of art, I should stress that I wasn't the first choice to contribute
to this discussion.
That it has been difficult to find an artist to take part who might take
such a critical stance (especially one whose practice has not been dependent
on corporate sponsorship) shows the degree of influence such sponsors
have (in that many artists won't speak up for fear of jeopardising
their careers) and the extent to which artists are now reliant upon private
sponsorship, often as a mandatory requirement to lever public funding.
But rather than berate artists -- especially when the public funding system
is unambiguously compelling artists to secure such sponsorship and with
few other options available -- criticism first and foremost should be
levelled at the network of agencies that are responsible for pushing corporate
sponsorship: which includes the Scottish Arts Council and Arts & Business.
So what does it matter who sponsors our cultural institutions and why
should cultural production be publicly funded at all -- all in 5 minutes?
Firstly, we have to believe that democratic debate and cultural experimentation
is fundamental to our development as a progressive society, and as such
that we should assist and encourage it and that this should be undertaken
within the public domain and be publicly accountable.
Secondly, we need to acknowledge that all cultural production has a political
existence in that it either challenges or supports the dominant myths
a culture calls 'truths'. It participates in the circulation of relative
values and meanings and there is an unacknowledged struggle over who determines
these 'truths'. So that in the field of cultural production there are
sites of perpetual contestation over what goes on -- what gets shown,
what gets discussed, what issues get raised and taken out of the 'museum'
into the surrounding social institutions - and vice versa.
So we can see that much of what now purports to constitute the domain
of, say, the Visual Arts is an effect of other kinds of forces, and relations
With regard to corporate sponsorship of the arts in the UK, this can be
traced back to Thatcherite policies of the 1980s, as Chin-tao Wu has done
in her excellent book 'Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention
since the 1980s', in which she interprets ABSA (the forerunner of 'Arts
& Business') as stating, unproblematically, that "arts sponsorship
is a corner stone of Thatcherite policy."
But since the '80s there has been a further shift away "from the
'something for nothing' arm's-length philanthropic [sponsorship] model
to a 'something for something' contract ..." , to quote Anthony Davies
and Simon Ford's 'Culture Clubs'.
What Wu documents and analyses is the relentless privatisation of cultural
organisations, and the excessive power that corporations have attained
as arbiters of contemporary culture, framing and shaping it while successfully
appropriating art museums and galleries as their own public-relations
vehicles, effectively using public money to enhance the prerogatives of
Which brings us to the reason I suspect these issues are being raised
now, that the BECK'S FUTURES 2003 is opening at the CCA in Glasgow.
I understand that the artists in the show had to sign a contract ensuring
that they would fully participate in all media events, and wonder if it's
more than just a myth that BECKs checks up that the artists are drinking
their product at the openings rather than some other brand. More worrying
though, is that I'm led to believe BECKs are looking to have even greater
influence over the actual selection of artists.
Similarly, Standard Life Investments intervened to have the title of a
show they were sponsoring at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, changed
to something more appealing to their brand image. And as they were sponsoring
the Education Officer they participated in the selection procedure for
the post, meaning they were also able to influence the actual reception
and interpretation of the work.
I'd like to finish by saying that the nonsense peddled about Corporate
Responsibility is that these developments are taking place against a backdrop
of waning confidence and belief in the ability of governments to regulate
the growing power of corporations and their networks of influence.