Variant issue17    www.variant.org.uk    [email protected]    back to issue list


Arts Programme, BBC Radio Scotland, 6/6/03
Discussion on Corporate Sponsorship of the Arts


Variant:

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 of power.

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 private capital.

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.