Squeamishness about corporate sponsorship suggests a tension that doesn’t really exist.
The news that the hedge fund Man Group is ending its support for the UK’s literary Booker Prize has once again raised questions about the relationship between the arts and corporate money, with many journalists raking up novelist Sebastian Faulks’s comment (which he says was taken out of context) that the Man Group was ‘kind of the enemy.’
It has long been accepted that there is a tension between culture and business. Interviews with museum leaders for Oxford’s The Museum Leaders Report (by Pegram Harrison, Chris Moos, Lucy Shaw, and Michael Smets) found that they perceived themselves to be pulled in three directions: between ‘culture,’ ‘commerce,’ and ‘communities.’ Many museum staff and other stakeholders viewed these challenges as ‘either/or’ problems, with the greatest perceived contradiction being between culture and commerce.
It can go the other way too. Students and executive education participants value the insights they get from the humanities at Oxford Saïd. But for many, activities relating to what may come under the heading of ‘culture’ – including the Engaging with the Humanities programme as well as Art@Oxford Saïd, the Oxford Cultural Leaders executive education programme, and indeed the Museum Leaders Report itself – are at times viewed as attractive oddities, things that are characteristically Oxonian and eccentric.
But how real is the tension and where does it come from? There may be no business like show business – but it is still a business. A recent talk at Oxford Saïd focused on the fact that fine art is an established alternative asset class: inch for inch, paintings can be far more valuable than diamonds. And as the English Faculty’s Professor Emma Smith reminded us in 2018, even the UK’s most revered cultural icon, Shakespeare, emerged from a highly commercial environment. Indeed, speaking at the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management (EIASM) workshop on Managing Arts and Cultural Organisations at Oxford Saïd in November 2018, artist and educator Sylvia Lahav threw away her planned paper to tackle this head on: ‘Art has always had an entrepreneurial and commercial element,’ she said. ‘It has never been just about working alone in your studio—you have to know how to make exciting links between things.’
The Romantics are probably to blame for the idea that business and the arts are enemies. It is hard to reconcile the sense of an original genius, or of art as the product of a spontaneous outpouring of powerful feelings, with such businesslike activities as understanding your market or tailoring your offer to fit demand. In the UK at least, the Romantic movement’s respect for nature was in direct opposition to the Industrial Revolution (those ‘dark satanic mills’), both the result and the cause of an exponential growth in trade.
This has left us, more than two centuries on, with a whole load of conflicted feelings. Should artists care about making money? The stereotype would have them starving in garrets (although something less conducive to making great art as severe malnutrition is hard to imagine). Certainly there is a degree of suspicion about anything in the arts world that is commercially successful, as that suggests that it might be ‘popular’ and therefore not good art. But then something which is not popular requires subsidies or sponsorship to be made or performed – and thereby runs the risk of becoming somehow ‘elitist.’