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Corporate Giving

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art needed a new president, in 1999, they did not ask an art historian, or even an arts manager; instead, they asked David McKinney, former president of IBM Europe. In the heady days of the 1990s, when corporate funding for the arts reached unprecedented levels, it made sense to appoint a businessman as helmsman for one of the world's richest museums.

Now, with corporate profits down sharply and a new Wall Street scandal each week, the marriage between corporations and culture seems uncertain. Thus it was with palpable anxiety that cultural fundraisers gathered on June 20 to hear Citigroup Foundation president, Charles V. Raymond, American Express Foundation president, Mary Beth Salerno, and senior vice president for corporate social responsibility at JPMorgan Chase, Michael Feller, discuss their companies' commitments to the arts.

The trio's message was upbeat: in their corporations, at least, philanthropy doesn't follow profitability. When the market is down, giving doesn't drop off, just as in really good times -- e.g., the late 1990s -- it doesn't go up as dramatically as profits. By keeping some charitable funds in reserve, these corporations are able to be reliable partners to arts groups over time. And yet, overall, corporate funding did go up 30 percent from 1995 to 1999, and it is likely to decline some in the next few years.

In addition to the considerable tax benefits, corporations will continue to fund the arts because it is relatively cheap, and it makes good public relations sense. This summer's River to River Festival, an ambitious line-up of outdoor concerts and walking tours in Lower Manhattan, is sponsored by, among others, the Port Authority, World Financial Center, New York Stock Exchange, and, most prominently, American Express. The festival is part feel-good, family-friendly urban party and part advertisement for the solidarity and strength of the Lower Manhattan business community. This kind of corporate sponsorship taps in to the post-9/11, post-Enron sentiments that there is more to life than numbers--and more to corporations than greed and the bottom line. Citigroup's "Live Richly" ads remind us to "Live within your means; sing beyond your range" and that "You don't need a lot of money to toot your own horn; you need a horn." Both ads tout Citigroup's funding of a concert series.

Advice to Fundraisers

If these days corporations need to blanket themselves in culture, many cultural groups are in desperate need of partners. To strengthen their financial positions, many say, arts institutions both large and small should follow the corporate example: "Form partnerships," advises JPMorgan's Michael Feller. Just as companies merge to reduce costs and maximize profits, artistic partnerships can pool basic resources -- like office space and equipment, or marketing budgets -- to reduce overhead, increase visibility, and maximize bargaining power. (Many groups are already doing this)

Judith A. Jedlicka, president of the Business Committee for the Arts, says that arts groups should focus on making partnerships at the small, local level. Companies with budgets of under $1 million a year, including many printers and small manufacturers, comprise the overwhelming majority of all corporations, and yet they are often ignored by fundraisers, who tend to gravitate toward high-profile corporations. In a national survey, the Business Committee for the Arts found that many smaller companies did not give money to arts groups simply because they had never been asked, or because they felt no connections to the arts in their communities. Arts groups have to do a better job in forging meaningful connections with local businesses (in other words, don't just send a yearly letter asking for money).

The Bottom Line

In early June, the Americans for the Arts research and advocacy group released a two-year study of the economic impact of nonprofit arts. Across the nation, the study found, the arts generate $134 billion in economic activity annually and result in $24.4 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues. These are just the latest numbers in a spate of recent studies that emphasizes the economic value of the arts. Armed with such figures, cultural groups should feel confident in knocking on corporate doors, even during the current economic climate.

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine. 

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