Challenging Times For The Arts Demand Creative Thinking

Ever since the emergence of sport, music and media as preferred destinations for sponsors, arts institutions have found it challenging to secure commercial partners. But the job has become even harder in the last couple of years as a growing number of stakeholders within the arts community and beyond have started to question the company that some of the UK’s most illustrious arts organisations and events keep.

Oil giant BP, for example, has been a lightning rod for criticism, with opponents objecting to its links with the Royal Opera House, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and Royal Shakespeare Company. Such is the pressure that has been brought to bear that the RSC decided, last week, to end its partnership with BP two years early. The National Theatre has followed suit by severing links with Shell. As the result, other institutions, already subjected to numerous protests and complaints, are likely to face strong calls to follow suit.

It’s not just oil companies that have been subjected to scrutiny either. Defence company BAE Systems withdrew a high-profile arts sponsorship last year while Stagecoach South East was forced to withdraw from the Turner Prize in a controversy related to LGBT rights. Elsewhere, the Sackler Trust has recently stopped funding the arts after becoming embroiled in a series of legal disputes regarding its connection to the US opioid crisis.

An obvious concern for arts institutions is that this backlash against brands might become infectious (forcing incumbent sponsors to pull out and persuading potential partners to spend their money elsewhere). But at time of writing there does seem to be a pragmatic acknowledgement that the arts sector needs support from the commercial sector if it is to deliver against outreach, inclusion, diversity and accessibility goals.

The Tate Modern, for example, has not really attracted much censure for its high-profile partnership with Hyundai, despite the latter’s clear connection with the oil industry. And BMW’s prestigious Art Car project is a long-standing example of how automotive and art sector can work in partnership.

Similarly, air travel is widely acknowledged to be a leading contributor to CO2 emissions, but once again there are high-profile arts sponsors in this sector, notably Manchester Airports and leading airline Emirates. Rolls-Royce, which straddles automotive and airlines, has worked with East Midlands’ orchestra Sinfonia Viva – part of the company’s target of reaching six million people through STEM activities by 2020.

Global finance, another high-profile target for critics and activitists, also continues to be deeply embedded in the arts sector – as do fashion and luxury. At time of writing, brands ranging from BNY Mellon and UBS to Hugo Boss and Bulgari are involved in arts events, exhibitions and galleries around the world. Within the UK, First Direct has forged and effective partnership with the Northern Ballet, while Santander is a long term supporter of entrepreneurs at the British Library.

But what if this changes? Where might arts institutions go next if the criticism of BP spills over into other industrial sectors? Well, it has to be stressed that there are very few business sectors that are completely fault free, but below are several industry categories where arts institutions have already found viable partnerships and may be able to uncover new ones.

Professional Services: 

Accountants, lawyers and consultants also have their critics, but they tend to be one stage removed from the kind of allegations hurled at big industrial beasts like BP. 2019’s winner of the UK Sponsorship Awards Art prize, for example, was Accenture, National Theatre’s Partner for Innovation. This partnership has led to the development and execution of the NT’s smart caption glasses for D/Deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons; a transformative innovation. The sponsorship underlines how companies perceived as culturally or socially ‘additive’ can slot into the arts neatly. EY’s enduring partnership with the Tate (2013-2022), based around support for exhibitions, is another example. Among law firms, Linklaters and Charles Russell Speechlys are active supporters of the arts, while ad agency MullenLowe Group has been sponsor of Central Saint Martins’ Degree Shows for the last decade.

Technology, Media & Telecom:

The above point also extends to companies that are driving the digital agenda – since they have a good track record of extending the reach of arts institutions. BT’s partnership with the Tate was an early example, but more recent sponsorships include Samsung’s support for the Science Museum and Telstra’s support for indigenous art in Australia. Still in Australia, Vodafone is a supporter of Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Closer to home, Three Mobile recently sponsored Central Saint Martins’ prestigious MA Fashion Press Show – described as “the first mixed reality fashion show powered by 5G”. Selected guests wore AR headsets to experience animated motifs as part of the catwalk collection of student designer Gerrit Jacob. CSM is now finalising a partnership with Three which will include a 5G Digital Lab. Often TMT sponsorships are about adding communication capabilities to the arts; but digital technology can be used to directly impact on creativity. Recent years, for example, have seen digital tech used to paint a very good ‘original’ Rembrandt and voice a JFK speech. Huawei, meanwhile, used artificial intelligence to complete Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Presumably there is an interesting angle here for arts organisations looking to create a relevant brand partnership.


Unilever’s decision to pull out of the Tate Modern in 2012 was a setback for the arts sector. But FMCG brands can be persuaded to come on board if they see a compelling community link. Manchester-based PZ Cussons, for example, supports the Hallé Orchestra, which is based in the same city. Brandon Leigh, chief financial officer, PZ Cussons, says: “We have supported the Hallé in all the traditional roles, but have taken great pride in broadening that support to include a diverse range of activities, from working with our perfumers to produce scratch and sniff cards for Hallé Schools concerts to support of the Hallé’s outreach programme which reaches over 50,000 children a year. We believe the arts play an essential role in a successful business community, and investment in the arts in the North is key to developing the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

Looking abroad, P&G supports a range of activities in its US HQ Cincinnati, including a music festival. As for retail, John Lewis teamed successfully with the Design Museum in 2014, as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations. Sainsbury’s is also prominently linked to the arts via the SCVA (Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts).


Hotels seem like an obvious bedfellow for the arts, given their shared interest in tourist dollars. But there aren’t too many successful examples to point to among the traditional hotel sector. Hilton has sponsored the Underbelly Festival in London while Sofitel Melbourne On Collins is an ongoing supporter of several local arts institutions including the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Bell Shakespeare Company, Victorian Opera, Melbourne International Film Festival, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. Arguably one of the most interesting players is category disruptor Airbnb, which formed an innovative partnership with the Natural History Museum. Airbnb and the Art Institute of Chicago were also behind this intriguing Van Gogh stunt.

Alcohol Brands/Food/Food Preparation

Alcohol sometimes runs into problems when associated with sport, but makes a natural partner for aspects of the arts. Somerset House, for example, secured support from Hennessy for an exhibition entitled Get Up Stand Up Now! 50 Years of Creative Black Pioneers. All told, around 1600 people attended Get Up to enjoy Caribbean food and drink, a Henny and ginger, live music, the exhibition and bespoke Hennessy installation. Brands that have worked closely with the sector over the years include Becks, Absolut Vodka and Heineken, which has been involved in some really innovative partnerships worldwide. Bollinger supports the arts via a literary award programme while Glenfiddich has an artists in residence programme.

Home appliance brand Kitchenaid may not be an obvious arts sponsor – but it has been involved in a very successful partnership with the British Library during the last year, in support of Food Season. Fast food chain Nando’s meanwhile is a high-profile arts sponsor in South Africa and recently supported an African Arts Fair at Somerset House.

Real Estate/Land

Grosvenor Britain & Ireland was nominated in the UKSA art category in 2019 for Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, a partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Linked to its iconic Belgravia sub-brand, the partnership was part of GBI’s current strategy to transform its brand image. In Australia, real estate firm BresicWhitney is also an active supporter of contemporary art. The link between real estate/building and the arts isn’t that surprising really. In 2016, for example, British Land announced a design partnership with the Royal College of Art. The goal of the initiative was to challenge students to find creative solutions to development opportunities across British Land’s portfolio. British Land calls itself “an active patron of the arts and design world”. The company has run a series of successful initiatives and programmes with partner organisations including Creative Curriculum, Sculpture in the City, Construction Youth Trust and Pathway to Property.

Of course, all of the above begs the question – why should sponsors get involved in the arts? For brands interested in the arts and wanting to know why they should part with their cash, this UKSA case file provides some solid reasons why. And for arts organisations trying to attract sponsors, it’s worth reading this story to try and get an idea of what they are looking for.

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