Corporate Reputation

The perils of corporate sponsorship

Activists are causing arts organisations to rethink - and even return - financial donations from corporate sponsors, which can leave both sides looking exposed

It was hardly the picture of perfect partnership that the Turner Prize organisers had in mind when the unveiling of a sponsorship by bus operator Stagecoach veered off track in May.

The agreement was revealed alongside the 2019 prize shortlist at a press conference organised by Tate Britain and the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, which is hosting the exhibition around this year’s award.

Before long, however, Tate director Alex Farquharson was telling journalists: ‘I think that’s probably enough on sponsors.’ Questions had been raised about Stagecoach’s Scottish chairman Sir Brian Souter’s opposition to children being taught about homosexuality in schools – beliefs that sit awkwardly with Turner’s 2018 award for a film about ‘queer identity’ and coming out as gay in rural Scotland.

A day later, Tate, Turner and Stagecoach issued a statement, saying the sponsorship had been ended by ‘mutual agreement’.

Stagecoach stated: ‘We are absolutely committed to diversity in our company. However, we do not want anything to distract from celebrating the Turner Prize artists and their work.’ It was too late. The media was distracted. Another positive news story about sponsorship had turned toxic.

Society has changed dramatically over the past few years, with rapidly changing norms about what is and is not considered acceptable

The episode was followed in June by Oscar-winning British actor Sir Mark Rylance resigning as an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company in protest at oil group BP sponsoring its ticket scheme for 16 to 25-year-olds.

This month, the RSC announced that it is terminating its relationship with BP two years early. Directors Gregory Doran and Catherine Mallyon stated: ‘Young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC. We cannot ignore that message.’

Together with the National Portrait Gallery’s decision in March to cancel a $1.3 million donation by a philanthropic foundation of America’s Sackler family, whose Purdue Pharma company faces allegations of misleading the public about the dangers of its OxyContin opiate drug, these events highlight a change in the risk profile of charitable associations with the arts.

‘The risk of corporate sponsorships is definitely increasing,’ says Andrew Brown, the former head of communications at serviced offices group Regus, energy provider Drax Power and insurer Ageas, who now runs consultancy WriteStyle Communications.

‘Where some of these organisations have been caught out is in their lack of awareness. Certainly, Brian Souter’s views on homosexuality and other aspects of society have been consistent for a long time, while members of the Sackler family have been involved with Purdue’s drugs for a number of years.

‘People should have been aware of both, but society has changed dramatically over the past few years, with rapidly changing norms about what is and is not considered acceptable. Some organisations have been left exposed. They haven’t moved quickly enough to review and understand the changing risk profile.’

While Stagecoach, BP and the five charitable foundations run by Sackler family members, including Purdue co-founders and co-chief executives Raymond and Mortimer, are just the latest examples of corporates being exposed by arts sponsorships, they also illustrate some other trends.

The first is an increasing willingness of star artists to join activist campaigns. The National Portrait Gallery declined its Sackler donation after American photographer Nan Goldin threatened to withdraw a planned retrospective of her work in protest.

The Tate, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University, home to the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, then all announced that they will no longer accept donations from the family.

Artistic power was also demonstrated by Rylance’s stance and criticism of BP by painter Gary Hume, the judge of this year’s Portrait Award by BP, who wants the company to relinquish its sponsorship.

‘BP has been a solution in the 20th Century,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in June, ‘and in the 21st Century, it’s a problem.’

In a letter to National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan, Hume added: ‘Either we distance ourselves from one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers and embrace the challenge of decarbonising or we continue to give legitimacy to BP and its business activities that are seriously exacerbating the problem.’

Eight other artists, including 2017 Portrait Award winner Henry Christian-Slane and 2011 victor Wim Heldens, penned a separate joint letter to Cullinan that protested against BP’s activities.

BAE Systems also withdrew its sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle and Gateshead last year after two acts pulled out of the event in protest over the company’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Secondly, activists are also going to new extremes. BP, which ended its 26-year Tate sponsorship in 2017, has had to cope with protesters pouring oil-like molasses at the organisation’s summer party and dousing a volunteer in oil at Tate Britain.

There are increased risks in sponsorship but there are also risks in not doing so and not being seen as a good corporate citizen, which is probably the motive of the people trying to stop sponsorships – to make the organisation look even worse

Campaign group Art Not Oil, meanwhile, used a Freedom of Information request to claim that trustees were not part of the decision-making process in a five-year renewal of its sponsorship of the British Museum. Where famous names cannot be found to front campaigns, workers at arts organisations are being stirred to action.

In December, 95 staff at New York’s Whitney Museum signed a letter demanding the removal of the gallery’s vice-chairman Warren Kanders, a significant contributor to its Andy Warhol retrospective, because he is chief executive of Safariland Group, an American supplier of tear gas used against Mexican migrants trying to enter the US.

This development is perhaps the most serious threat to corporate arts sponsorships, since it seeks to destroy the staff engagement that is often one of the major reasons of such arrangements.

‘Activism has got far more vociferous in recent years, due to social media and issues like Brexit and climate change, so you have to be prepared to be criticised whatever you do,’ says George Trefgarne, the former BP director of media and research who is now chief executive of strategic communications firm Boscobel & Partners.

‘The question then becomes Is it worth being criticised given the objectives and the motives of both the sponsor and the receiving organisation? Large multinationals of very high net worth receive multiple approaches daily to sponsor things and they do think very carefully about which are the right ones for them.

‘There are increased risks in doing them but there are also risks of not doing so and not being seen as a good corporate citizen, which is probably the motive of the people trying to stop sponsorships – to make the organisation look even worse.’

Chris Hook, marketing director at Bolton-based Warburtons, Britain’s biggest baker, goes further, feeling that the arts sponsorship arena has always been risky. ‘We’ve never really done it. It’s just too high-risk,’ he says. ‘As a fifth-generation family business, we prefer smaller, local, community-based agreements, such as our work with Cancer Research UK, our community investment strategy, which supports families, and our community grants scheme.’

Against this, hard-pressed arts organisations must weigh the freedoms that sponsors’ cash can bring. ‘We’ve always been sensitive to this issue and if in doubt discuss any major new partnerships with the board before pursuing them,’ says John Summers, chief executive of the Manchester-based Halle Orchestra, whose sponsors include soap manufacturer PZ Cussons, German engineering group Siemens and Manchester Airport.

‘All of our major gifts and sponsorships come after a lot of research and, often, years of building relationships before securing a deal so we know a lot about people who support the Halle before they do so. On the other hand, with statutory public support diminishing steadily and ever more conditions being placed on it, we have to be looking for new supporters all of the time.’

Sponsorship recipients are becoming more vocal, with some using financial arguments to justify deals and others stressing the need for freedom of expression. Faced with the visit of 350 anti-BP protesters in February, the British Museum said the company’s long-term support allows it to ‘plan programming in advance and bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely- popular exhibitions and associated public programmes’.

BP, which has denied that protests were behind the Tate sponsorship ending, said it was ‘disappointed and dismayed’ by the RSC decision, since the sponsorship gave 80,000 young people reduced rates over eight years.

The National Portrait Gallery meanwhile responded to the Hume protest by stressing that only one-third of its income is derived from government grants, with sponsorship by BP and others helping fund exhibitions and displays and enable free admission for the public.

On the Sackler issue, however, it highlighted its ethical fundraising policy which brings a ‘responsibility to ensure that donations are not accepted from questionable or inappropriate sources,’ including where support is deemed to be ‘in conflict with the objectives and values of the gallery’. At the Whitney, director Adam Weinberg took a middle line, issuing a note to staff stating: ‘Even as we contend with often profound contradictions within our culture, we must live within the laws of society and observe the rules of our museum – mutual respect, fairness, tolerance and freedom of expression and… a commitment to kindness.’

In cases where conflicts should have been clearly apparent, a more apologetic stance may be appropriate, such as the Tate’s admission that it did not know about Sir Brian’s views on gay rights when it agreed the Stagecoach sponsorship. ‘The relevant legal and financial due diligence was observed,’ it stated. ‘Neither Turner Contemporary nor Tate were aware of the wider issues.’

Brown believes that organisations contemplating sponsorships need to be much more rigorous. ‘It’s not necessarily that organisations have become complacent but there’s been a certain amount of naivety among both sponsoring and sponsored organisations around the exposure that they might get or how things may change over time,’ he says.

‘Organisations need to be reviewing these deals on a far more regular basis, with both sides having the options to change, adapt or cancel, which I don’t think has necessarily been the case in the past. Recipients are going to get a lot smarter about how they go into these relationships on a more even footing.’

There are still limits to the scale and scope of the increased scrutiny of sponsorship risks. The Met in New York says it has no plans to rename its Sackler Wing, while Tate Modern’s central escalators are still named after the family and there remains a Sackler Educational Laboratory at New York’s Museum of Natural History.

BP still supports the Royal Opera House and National Portrait Gallery, while Japan Tobacco International enjoys corporate membership deals with the British Museum, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Academy of Arts. British American Tobacco is a corporate sponsor of the London Symphony Orchestra and an associate member of the Royal Academy.

It is about finding those corporate funders where your mission, values and purpose align

Trefgarne believes arts organisations and their sponsors need to get better at communicating the benefits of such arrangements. ‘I suspect that BP feels that if it does not sponsor the nation’s key flagship institutions then who else will,’ he says. ‘It sees it as part of being a good corporate citizen, while organisations like the British Museum need big flagship sponsors who are able to pay substantial sums.

‘There are very few organisations that are in a position to be able to sponsor these big national art flagships. If BP dropped out, they would have a significant loss of income that quite possibly would not be replaced.’

Against this, Brian Crimmins, global managing partner of Omnicom’s PR and marketing coalition One Hundred Agency, warns that corporate sponsorship mindsets should not be about simply ‘securing dollars from any company willing to support you’.

‘It is about finding those corporate funders where your mission, values and purpose align,’ he adds. ‘Companies today seek non-profit organisations that can serve as strategic partners – those that that have the ability to further a business’ corporate purpose and help achieve both social and business objectives.

‘Sure, this can include traditional financial support but true strategic partnerships reach deeper within a company to align with employee interest and leverage additional assets the company can bring to bear. We can’t predict future behaviour so there can always be unintended consequences. But using this as a guiding principle should help minimise the risk for non-profits.’