Friday, 4 April 2014

Sponsorship of the arts is about more than money

An adapted version of a piece I wrote for the Standard a few years ago. Still relevant.

I suspect most reading this have a fairly robust understanding of what 'sponsorship', as it relates to events or entertainment, means; why a sponsor wants to attach itself to an event, why a producer needs that investment and the various imperatives that mean it is hard to watch or partake of anything in the realm of amusement that isn't prefaced by an introduction to one brand or another.

Sponsorship is - not unreasonably - a commercial undertaking. Despite the corporate social responsibility benefits most companies want to see attached to it, a sponsorship isn't charity. Today the arts, which have always been the recipient of corporate money but has not always shown a proficient understanding of what the investor wants or needs, is handing around the begging bowl with greater alacrity and earnest pleading in our collective eyes. We all know why that is too. But do arts organisations and events really understand the needs of those whose largesse we seek? Of course, it isn't really largesse is it? Some sponsorship comes about because one powerful individual within a company loves an event or art form and he or she is an exquisitely fortuitous person to find. More commonly, several individuals within the firm will identify an audience and seeks to hit it when its guard is down (usually when said audience is having a really good time). They count numbers, examine profiles, dig and probe, do their sums and then bargain hard; t'was ever thus.

Opera Holland Park, the opera festival whose logo adorns my begging bowl is not unique in searching for partners and in twenty years, I have encouraged the giving of a few million quid by companies who have wanted to associate themselves with the sort of thing we do and the kinds of people who consume it. Some deals have been a doddle, bringing a King's ransom for obvious associations but others have seen me leap through rings of fire for a moderate amount – all sponsorship life is here. But why the arts need sponsorship is precisely the reason it is a good vehicle for projecting a company or brand. Sometimes it is like capturing stardust to try and express the impact of (in my case) opera. It is transient, lasts for a short time but lives in the memory, sometimes forever. Experiences such as those are the most powerful kind. Most sponsorship is attracted to the emotional and the fleeting because what people love, they love with a passion, intensity and irrationality that transcends reason. Festivals like ours have an advantage there because patrons often give unswerving loyalty to it and yes, they do frequently look kindly on a company that helps it to thrive and flourish.

The argument that the arts should be self funding can always be justified by the enormous commercial producers (and good luck to them, although they all seek sponsors too) but culture is what drives and sustains our nation –if that sounds excessive and self-serving, just think about it for a moment. But we can only charge so much for a ticket if we are to ensure that as many people as possible can enjoy the experience. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea supports Opera Holland Park but has conflicting priorities right now and so some of our audience will pay more, partly because we want to keep the thousands of tickets that we sell at just £12. In this, the arts portray community and a collective understanding. Sponsors sit in the space between state support and private donations and they will be asked to play a greater role by this government. I have found that a relationship with a sponsor whose image and reputation is attached to your own inculcates a discipline into the way you present yourself, run the company and manage your staff. A total partnership that runs like a stick of rock through Opera Holland Park's core is the best kind and it helps not just the sponsor looking to engage with our audience and associate itself with the creation of great art but the art itself. And if that sponsorship helps bring more people to opera (or theatre, dance et al) it simply has to be a good thing for our society, for business and the promotion in the long run of a culture of support and giving. OHP would not be where it is without the creative and very participative support of our current sponsors Investec Wealth & Investment (now signed on for a further three years) Cadogan Estates in 2000, without the commitment of Associated Newspapers before that or the partnership we enjoyed with Korn/Ferry for three years. The list of past and present supporters is a gratifyingly long one. These are all sponsors who can justly claim to have played a part in creating something. Simply put, a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Times can't do that.

Arts sponsorship isn't appropriate for everyone and it would be fatuous to propose otherwise but for those with invention, a desire to spend time in an environment suffused with talent, face to face with their stakeholders and clients and to literally help improve our society, then it is unequalled.

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