Though I've never been one to read comic books, I enjoy a good superhero film as much as the next girl. This summer has been a big one for heroes: Spiderman, The Avengers and another Batman movie all hit theaters this summer. Probably most anticipated and definitely most appealing to me is the Batman story. In The Dark Knight Rises, we see a broken hero who has assumed the role of villain in order to preserve the image of the hero "Harvey Dent" that Gotham so desperately needed. Maybe my arts advocacy wheels have been turning a bit too hard lately, but when I thought about the blurred line of hero and villain... something came to mind: corporate sponsorship in the arts.
Just like politics, corporate involvement in the arts seems to trigger a polarizing reaction from folks. You can't see a CSO concert or visit the Art Institute without seeing Bank of America all over programs, posters and banners. In a recent trip to deposit a birthday check from my grandparents, the ATM informed me of a very cool program BofA offers its cardholders - the "Museums on Us" program (web page). Every heard of it? I hadn't, and I've belonged to the bank for almost eight years. So excited by the prospect of free admission to my favorite Chicago museums, I did some poking around and found this among their "Our Mission" page:
As a company with employees and clients in more than 100 markets around the world, Bank of America is committed to a program of cultural support designed to engage communities in creative ways to build mutual respect and understanding; to strengthen institutions that contribute to local economies; to engage and provide benefits to our employees, and to fulfill our responsibilities as a major corporation with global reach that makes an impact on economies and societies throughout the world.
Taking responsibility? Mutual respect and community engagement? Sounds good to me! Yet this statement depicting a "hero persona" is not what most of us think of when we think of corporations. Many artists, for legitimate reasons, have concerns that corporate involvement inevitably damages the integrity of an arts organization. In investigating this topic online, I came across a PBS article from 1998 that stated:
Ever since Congress began cutting back on its allocation to the National Endowment for the Arts - most recently by 39 percent in 1996, museums have had to rely on millions of dollars donated by the business community. The Business Committee for the Arts estimates that corporate donations hit an all time high of $875 million in 1995, and that these donations make or break an exhibit or show.
Such trends arouse concern that an increasing dependence on business dollars might force cultural institutions to play by the rules of the business world, either by changing the content of a show, or overwhelming an exhibit with marketing and promotional material (full article here).
My, what a difference almost 15 years can make.... Can a big gift from a corporate sponsor alter the programming of an organization like the CSO's season? At what cost does the money really come?
Just as Batman teeters on the border of hero and villain, so can corporate sponsors. Though no organization wants to lean heavily on one source of income for survival, corporate gifts can make a huge difference in the success of an ensemble / museum etc. To quote a different super saga, "With great power, comes great responsibility".
In your eyes, what kind of power do corporations have? Are they abusing their responsibility? If you had to choose (understanding that very few corporate sponsorships are purely one or the other), do you see corporate involvement as heroic or villainous? I look forward to reading your thoughts.