From Da Vinci to Tracey Emin, artists have always relied on commercial benefactors. But, like the protagonists in our reworking of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding (opposite), modern firms are finding that there's more to marriage than money. Getting into bed with the arts can be good for business as well as creative endeavour, says David Butcher.
In the 15th century, the Medici banking empire was the most profitable business in Europe. It was also the most lavish in its patronage. Cosimo de' Medici, the greatest of the dynasty, was in some ways the Bill Gates of his day, but unlike Gates he was renowned as an arbiter of taste. So when Donatello, one of his favourite artists, fell into a dispute with a Genoese businessman over a commission for a bronze bust, Cosimo tried to intercede, taking the two men onto the roof of his Florentine palazzo to examine the work.
The Genoese argued that Donatello was charging too much for it. Cosimo urged the merchant to raise his offer, but the man replied that since the artwork had been completed in a month, the labour worked out at just half a florin a day. At this, the artist flew into a rage and said the merchant was clearly more used to bargaining for beans than works of art, and in his fury he dashed the sculpture off the parapet and into the street below, where it shattered. The merchant was instantly mortified and began pleading with the artist, offering him twice as much money if he would make another bust. But neither his promises nor Cosimo's entreaties could persuade Donatello to do so.
It's an old story. Disputes between artists and their commercial patrons have always been a feature of what is often a tempestuous relationship.
A couple of years ago, the chief executive of a company that was sponsoring a major art exhibition was heard at the opening-night party offering a bottle of champagne to any member of his staff who could spot the second example of the company's logo on display. The chief exec, like the Genoese merchant, felt he was being screwed.
But both of them had the art/business relationship all wrong. Just as you don't commission an artwork and then start haggling over the price when it's finished, fewer businesses these days see the old-fashioned sponsorship model of swapping a large cheque for a small logo as sensible.
Things have moved on. Arguably, the prospects for the relationship between commerce and the arts have never looked better, not because businesses are especially keen to pump money into artistic enterprises - they're not - but because they see in the arts world resources that are of huge value to them and which they can (to use a word that all the relevant players avoid like the plague) exploit.
'The arts are a secret weapon for a businessman,' argues Robin Wight, chairman of WCRS, the advertising agency that helped build brands such as Orange and the new Mini. 'Stop thinking about the arts just as pictures hanging on the wall in an art gallery - though it is that. Think of it as a process that can inspire your people, improve your reputation, help deliver your market.'
This is the new gospel of engagement with the arts, and Wight's enthusiasm is not coincidental. He chairs Arts & Business, the government-funded body that acts as a kind of matchmaker-cum-marriage counsellor for bringing businesses and arts organisations together and making their union fruitful. Whereas A&B was originally set up (as the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts) to be a broker for straightforward sponsorships, it is now seeking to make a stronger case.
'A plc has got to justify every penny it spends on the arts,' explains A&B chief executive Colin Tweedy, 'because there's a purist argument that if you cannot justify it as a business activity, it is corporate theft. I know very cultured people who argue that sponsorships that are just personal ego trips are theft from the shareholders, so business people who give any money away that isn't justified should be prosecuted.'
It's a tough-minded view, but Tweedy accepts the force of the argument and he spends his days convincing business people that spending on the arts can be justified in purely business terms. 'Robin Wight has encouraged me to take that risk, to go to businesses and say: 'We're here to make you more successful.'
'It's not like classic arts sponsorship, which is actually quite passive. To really embed the arts in corporate culture is very time-consuming. You're using the arts organisation to enhance you and develop your people, and it means you've got to spend more time on it. But the results are phenomenal, I believe.'
The company that Tweedy presents as 'absolutely the model' for this kind of process is Lever Faberge . Formed in 2001 by the merger of two Unilever sister companies - Elida Faberge and Lever Brothers - it's the force behind brands such as Persil, Dove and Lynx. Its chairman Keith Weed took a strategic decision a few years ago to invest zbig money in the company's culture.
'I wanted to create a business that really valued creativity and innovation and embraced change,' explains Weed. 'Art's a great way to bring that sort of inspiration into the business. It's not sponsorship: we don't sign cheques to support things. It's an exchange. We put funding in, but in return for something. We start with: what's the business issue we're trying to address? Then we find an artist to help us tackle it.'
The programme is called Project Catalyst and raises the idea of arts-based training to something of a company religion. At one level, the logic of it is straightforward: since Lever Faberge is the largest poster advertiser in the UK, Catalyst put on a photography course so that its marketers could develop their visual skills. They used disposable cameras to experiment with capturing images, and the results were shown at a company exhibition where employees invited along family and friends. But this was more than just skilling-up staff. 'It breaks down people's self-limiting beliefs,' Weed argues. 'People were saying: 'I never thought I was artistic', because you're programmed all your life about the things you can't do, and a project like this enables you to practise in new areas. If we focus on everyone in the business as an individual, and on their individual growth, the combined growth of the business follows.'
The company sent employees on a playwriting course at the Royal Court and engaged a poet-in-residence to help people think more creatively about the written word. Weed himself uses a theatre director as his presentation coach. Lever Faberge started an 'inspiration library', which Project Catalyst stocks with books that have inspired individual employees, and it has a stairwell art collection bought by the company but voted on by employees.
Volunteers from the company spend time working on the boards of arts organisations to contribute their business skills and learn from the artistic process. And the company's head office currently has exhibits in its lobby inspired by its brands, including a Helen Storey dress inspired by Persil and - believe it or not - a piece of music written by saxophonist Andy Sheppard to reflect Vaseline Intensive Care.
This is not, Weed emphasises, any kind of whimsy or window-dressing.
'At the end of the day, I am a hard-nosed businessman who wants to sell more washing powder. This is not a soft issue, it's a very hard issue of how you motivate and inspire people. We are a mass-market consumer goods company. We sell more than a million and a half units a day. And if I didn't think this programme was pulling its weight I would cut it in a second.'
And in case anyone thinks Lever's shareholders should be worried, Weed's company has consistently posted double-digit profit growth - not bad when you're operating in mature markets.
To illustrate how Catalyst can tackle specific business problems for him, Weed cites the example of a Lever Faberge account team that had a problem with one of its customers. They went to the Catalyst team for help and some theatre artists were called in to do a role-playing exercise.
'They created a neutral territory around the theatre to have a conversation,' he recalls. 'It held a mirror up to what was going on in a light-hearted enough way to lance the boil. Because both teams were pulled out of their own comfort zone into a new area, a different dialogue started and it broke down the stalemate.'
Lever Faberge is not the only company to discover the benefits of empowering its people via creative activities (JP Morgan and Marsh insurance, for instance, have done similar work on a smaller scale), but Catalyst is the most thorough-going programme around, spending 'well into six figures' every year on its staff.
Tweedy even argues that companies have a moral obligation to nurture their staff in this way, citing in his support Keith Clark, formerly senior partner at the world's biggest law firm, Clifford Chance.
'He told me: 'We take these kids, these lawyers, and we exploit them for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We pay them shedloads of money, we exhaust them, we de-motivate them and break their relationships. We have to recognise that these people have souls. It's a four-letter word that is incredibly embarrassing.'
The idea that lawyers have souls may come as news to some people, but assuming they do, they were surely soothed by Clifford Chance's decision to call in as 'chamber orchestra in residence' the London Musici, who under conductor Mark Stephenson have become experts at putting on concerts in office atria and working with teams of business people to help them express themselves through music.
But is artistic expressiveness really a condition of business acumen?
Was Lorenzo de' Medici (Cosimo's illustrious grandson) more successful as a banker because he championed the young Michelangelo and wrote poetry as a relaxation from the cares of business? Was Henry Clay Frick a more effective steel tycoon because he acquired a great collection of Old Masters?
It's easy to be cynical about the many programmes that have grown up alongside the hip rhetoric of innovation and creativity in managementspeak.
'You can't open an annual report without seeing the words 'innovation' and 'creativity' somewhere,' observes academic Chris Bilton, who runs the MA in creative and media enterprises at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick. He's far from cynical about the potential benefits of the arts for personal development, but he sees a danger if it's merely a gesture.
'Creative management training - people building pyramids out of coloured balls in a hotel room ... that sort of thing empowers individuals and they go back to the office feeling good about themselves and more creative. But unless there's a system in their business, a risk-taking culture, they won't be able to apply that creativity and reap the benefits, so they'll just get frustrated. You have to get senior staff to take it seriously and integrate it into the structures of the company.'
The fact that two-thirds of Lever Faberge's employees have taken part in a Project Catalyst event (the chairman included) suggests it's a programme that has truly entered the firm's bloodstream.
But for all that this approach may be the wave of the future, most companies' engagement in the arts is marketing-led rather than HR-led. Brands like Becks, Orange and Selfridges have been positioned and differentiated by a savvy and long-running association with the arts. For years, Becks has been the beer handed out at any hip arts event, and has earned a kudos that most TV-driven marketing campaigns can only hope for. And whereas Vodafone spends millions sponsoring football, Orange has put its money into film awards and a prize for women's fiction, boosting its image as the touchy-feely mobile network that really cares.
'If you want to build a big awareness, go to sport,' says Wight, who as a lifelong advertising man knows a thing or two about building brands.
'But lots of people won't drive your success aura. The right scalpel for that particular marketing cut is the arts. It's an unbeaten thing for improving the reputation of a business or a brand, because it doesn't have the fingerprints of self-interest on it. Consumers are very sophisticated; they know that an advertisement is of interest to the advertiser so they've got all their defences up, and advertising has to do certain things to get through. What's great about arts sponsorship is it goes straight over the defences without alerting the consumer's radar. It gets a level of reputation enhancement more quickly than anything else.'
Wight even argues that humans are genetically programmed to see companies that support the arts as successful organisms. It's the peacock's tail principle: lavish display behaviour suggests an animal that's healthy and strong. He plans to flesh out this argument in a forthcoming lecture, but plenty of companies could claim to have been working on the principle for years. Selfridges became the hippest department store around by getting hot artists such as Sam Taylor-Wood and Julian Opie to clad its stores and by running arts-driven promotions such as its Bollywood and Body Craze events. These are more than just PR stunts that piggy-back on the arts: they grow out of a company culture.
'The Selfridges renaissance that has been well documented since 1996 had design and architecture and the arts at the heart of it,' says the chain's director of marketing James Bidwell. 'We don't have a very big marketing budget but we use it in an entrepreneurial and creative way. It's easy to spend a load of money on advertising, but you can easily not connect, whereas if you've got journalists writing about you and opinion formers talking about you, it works. Last year's Bollywood promotion generated pounds 10 million worth of publicity and a 10% sales increase that month. The whole thing cost about pounds 1.5 million.'
The fact that well-aimed sponsorship not only positions your brand beautifully but also comes cheap makes it attractive to financial services companies, which can sometimes struggle to mark themselves out from their competitors. That's why banks and accountancy firms are such prolific sponsors of exhibitions and concerts - well, that and the opportunities to schmooze with clients over a glass of bubbly.
For instance, Lloyds TSB Scotland has used its sponsorship of exhibitions such as 'Rembrandt's Women' and Mario Testino's portraits to position itself as innovative and fresh compared to its more established competitors in the Scottish market. 'We've had a significant uptake in brand profile, brand recognition, brand consideration and an awful lot of that is tied in to what we're doing with these sponsorships,' says chief executive Susan Rice.
She and her team approach it as a rigorous discipline. 'You have to ask: What does each arts activity say? What are its values? And make sure that they line up with yours. You then need to speak to whoever's putting it on and think about what their goals are and say: 'These are our goals as a business - can we find a way to match up those needs?''
But the beauty of an arts sponsorship is that it doesn't only do a marketing job for you, it ticks a corporate social responsibility box as well. 'As a company, you should give something back,' Rice argues. 'You create a civilised society by supporting the arts and you strengthen society in general by supporting the infrastructure, and your customers are stronger. It does come back to your business at the end of the day. It's very hard to put a number on that but my experience tells me that that's the case.'
It's an argument that Barclays takes very seriously too, sponsoring public-access events at the British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Theatre - where, for instance, it subsidised 4,000 theatre tickets at pounds 5 a head for young and disadvantaged people who had never been before.
According to Alice Wilcock, Barclays' head of community affairs, this is not just philanthropy (like Lloyds TSB Scotland, it donates to charities for that), it ties in with their brand strategy. 'The marketing and the sponsorship and the community element are all aligned to deliver to shareholders,' she adds. 'Ideas around accessibility and ease are what our brand vision of 'fluent in finance' is all about.'
But hang on. As more and more companies buy into what the arts can do for them, are we missing something? In the 1980s arts organisations lost most of the public funding that they had come to take for granted. Some fell by the wayside, but those that survived became good at justifying themselves on economic grounds - as employers, as a source of tourism, as a way to renew communities and regenerate inner cities. Now they're able to tout themselves as a tool for solving business problems too. If we're not careful, art will come to be seen in purely instrumental terms.
We'll think of it as a means to any number of ends rather than as a worthwhile end in itself.
'We need to rediscover the cultural values of culture,' warns Warwick University's Bilton. 'So much of the last 20 years has been about quantifying the economic and social benefits of art that there's a crisis of confidence in the cultural sector. So an exhibition's purpose becomes about community building or education or citizenship - all of which is fine, but it's not why you paint a picture in the first place.'
The man who coached Weed in presentation skills, theatre director Karl James, doesn't see it in these terms. He thinks most arts organisations are still failing to exploit their biggest resource - the creative processes they use, which come as second nature to them but are invaluable to businesses. 'I wish I could teach every theatre and dance company and music company how to get out there and let other people share in their process,' he says.
'Theatre companies work for weeks to get a pounds 10k grant from their local authority when they could get twice that from doing a workshop for a business if they knew how.'
It calls to mind a bright future for artists as the natural successors to management consultants and coaches in business life. Instead of seeking help from those typically 1990s figures, companies and individual executives will come routinely to hire actors, dancers, painters and musicians to help them release their inner creativity. Too far-fetched? Arts & Business believes it's the way we're heading.
'We take our bodies to the gym; why don't we take our minds to the gym?' asks Wight. 'The arts are a gym for the mind.'
Nominations for the Arts & Business Awards 2003 in association with Management Today are now being accepted.
For more information, please visit www.aandb.org.uk
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