Arts and Cultural Sponsorships - what lies ahead as sector begins to open up?

Few sectors of society have been left unscathed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but there’s no question that arts and culture has been among the hardest hit – with events cancelled, jobs lost and some institutions forced to close their doors for good.  UKSA's Andy Fry looks at how the arts have risen to the challenges and what lies ahead for the sector.

In February 2021, a House of Commons report laid bare the scale of the devastation, noting that 15,000 theatrical performances were cancelled during the first lockdown and over £300 million in box office revenue was lost. By November 2020, research from Art Fund found that 60% of museums and galleries were concerned about surviving the pandemic. Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber reported it was costing £1m per month to keep his seven London venues closed. 

Commenting on the overall picture, the DCMS warned that the pandemic presented “the biggest threat to the UK’s cultural infrastructure, institutions and workforce in a generation”. Not only that, the DCMS observed that the loss of arts institutions’ community outreach threatened to reverse progress in diversity and inclusion, and undermine the health and education benefits that flow out of cultural engagement.

The government provided significant support in the shape of £1.57 billion emergency funding for cultural, arts and heritage institutions. This has undoubtedly softened the blow, but the sector still faces a rocky road to recovery as restrictions ease. 

The short to medium term is likely to see reduced audiences – either because of social distancing rules, lack of consumer disposable income or the public’s reluctance to venture out again. This in turn will mean reduced arts industry headcount, as organisations look to control costs. Fewer people in the back office, smaller performing troupes, reduced reliance on freelancers are all inevitable consequences as the beleaguered sector starts to mop up the damage caused by Covid-19.

Not surprisingly, arts sponsorship has also been caught up in the logistical nightmare caused by the pandemic. With performances and community programmes cancelled, it has been extremely difficult for rights holders to woo new brands.

Fortunately, however, most existing sponsors have stood by their partners, seeking solutions rather than cutting short contracts. There were some strong examples of this in the Rising To The Challenge section of the 2020/21 UK Sponsorship Awards – designed to celebrate partnerships that found ingenious ways to overcome the limitations imposed on them.

Among the finalists, for example, was The National Gallery, which brought art treasures to the public by utilising Ocean Outdoor’s network of high impact digital poster sites. In just two weeks, the campaign generated 7 million impressions and was covered by media including Sky News and Time Out.  

The V&A and its sponsor HTC VIVE Arts also found a way to engage with audiences around Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, an exhibition exploring the origins and adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. HTC VIVE Arts had created a VR experience allowing visitors to enter a virtual Wonderland. When Covid-19 meant the exhibition had to be postponed, the partners built an extended at-home version of the immersive VR experience.

Clearly, the ability to harness digital technology has been key to sustaining the arts sector during the pandemic, with some institutions capitalising on the surge in armchair museum goers brought about by lockdowns. Arts institutions ranging from the Vatican to the Louvre have responded to enforced closures by offering online tours. Early in the pandemic, there were reports that some of these tours had led to huge spikes in interest, with the British Museum among the beneficiaries. Some of the more ambitious examples of online tours have seen curators and artists walking among exhibits, providing unique insights. The Uffizi in Florence is one example among many. 

This harnessing of digital tech can also be seen in another Rising To The Challenge Finalist - The National Gallery & Nikon Digital Content Partnership. In its UKSA 2020/21 entry, the National Gallery noted that: “As a public institution, we have a role to support the nation’s wellbeing, so the pandemic called for innovative ways for people to engage with our collection.” 

Forced to close its doors for the first time in its 200-year history, the Gallery became “a digital-first organisation”. Working with Nikon it devised a programme of ‘closure content’ accompanied by a marketing and PR campaign. This included a Picture of the Month series (using specialist kit provided by Nikon), a conservation series and curator-led talks. The latter provided academic insights, reinforcing the synergies in creative techniques used by artists and photographers.

As restrictions lift, it’s encouraging to note that some sponsors are raring to go. EY, for example, has been supporting the arts since 1994, arguing the sector “has a significant role to play in the prosperity of the UK”. In 2013, it launched the EY Tate Arts Partnership, which extends across all four Tate galleries.

This month, EY is sponsoring Tate’s re-opening show at Tate Modern, ‘The EY Exhibition: The Making of Rodin’. This ground-breaking new exhibition will offer a unique insight into Rodin’s innovative ways of working, featuring over 200 works, many of which have never been shown outside France before. 

The desire to bounce back strongly and build back better is going to be key to the arts sector’s revival. Simon Fairclough, director of development at City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, made a similar point in a Culture Bar podcast. He said: “It was quite challenging at the start but I do think that idea of using this as an opportunity to accelerate your key priorities is something that many organisations could consider as a strategy and as a narrative over this period.” So what kind of trends can we expect to see in arts and culture as the sector opens up? Here are just a few themes that arts organisations and sponsors will need to consider during the coming year:

Hybrid events will be the norm: In a recent article, The Guardian took the view that “hybridity, adapting events to have a combined online and live existence, is surely here to stay”. It cited the example of Kwame Kwei-Armah, who has announced that he intends to livestream all future performances at the Young Vic, as well as stage them to a physical audience. Part of the impetus for hybrid events is that some audiences won't be able to get to the real thing because of Covid restrictions (eg. international fans). But even before Covid-19, the arts sector struggled to provide access for all sectors of society. So hybrid events are a way to counter that. For sponsors, this is a positive trend as it offers access to new audiences and the ability to be associated with premium content. In the Culture Bar podcast referenced above, Charlotte Appleyard, director of development and business innovation at the Royal Academy of Arts, said organisations like hers were already moving away from a traditional corporate sponsorship model, towards content deals. “So the kind of deals we were trying to put forward and demonstrate the value of include sponsoring our Twitter feed, or online content etc.”

Workforce and wider community will require additional TLC: As outlined above, the loss of the arts has had a devastating impact on the sector’s workers and wider community. Any sponsor that embraces arts sponsorship must figure out how it is going to help raise morale. Mental health is likely to be a prevalent theme in terms of both staff support and community outreach. Attention will also need to be paid to the negative impact the pandemic has had on diversity and inclusion, with ethnic groups and disabled workers hit especially hard. In 2019, Somerset House and Hennessy worked together on a collaborative event called Get Up Stand Up Now: 50 Years of Black Creative Pioneers. The sponsorship gave Londoners a unique opportunity to feel and experience the influence of the black music community in a way that had never been attempted before. Projects that celebrate diverse communities in this engaging way will become more important than ever.

New approaches to space and structure will be explored: The pandemic hasn’t just encouraged arts organisations to accelerate their digital strategy, it has also forced them to innovate with space. This can be something as simple as the introduction of a one-way system through to the experimental use of an outdoor zone. The winner of the Arts & Culture Rising To The Challenge category was the Virgin Money Unity Arena, a pop up venue that enabled fans to watch live entertainment safely from private viewing areas. While this isn’t strictly speaking an arts-based example, it does demonstrate how rights holders and brands can think of new ways to connect with audiences.

Talent will be used to turbo-charge stories and experiences: Because audiences couldn’t actually see exhibits in person, arts institutions used talent and experts to guide people through digital experiences. Going forward, this use of charismatic and/or knowledgeable guides is something that is likely to be used more in both digital and real world contexts (note for example the growing trend towards ‘lates’). Visiting museums and galleries can be quite a dry experience. How much more exciting if the stories can be unpacked by someone who can provide a unique perspective. This trend seems especially significant in an era when people are much more curious about the social and political context of art. Different narrators can tell diverse stories about the same art, which is something sponsors can tap into. There’s also growing interest in the art treasures that are never properly displayed – see for example the new TV entertainment show Secrets Of The Museum.


The impetus towards cultural devolution will accelerate: When people aren’t allowed to travel outside their local area, it brings home just how concentrated the arts scene is in London. The DCMS, for example, estimates that 64% of arts and entertainment output is centred in the capital, compared to an average of 24% across all industries. No one especially wants to see the London arts infrastructure undermined, but the pandemic may provide an opportunity to readdress the balance so that audiences across the entire UK can have greater access to the arts. Arts Council England was already thinking along these lines before the pandemic struck – and Channel 4’s relocation to Leeds is a step in the right direction. Sponsors like EY are playing their part by working with arts institutions across the country: “This ensures the benefit of our programme is felt around the country for our people, our clients and the communities we work within.”

Cultural organisations will go where the audience is: Digital tech, devolution and pop up events are all part of a wider trend, which is about arts and cultural organisations actively pursuing audiences where-ever they maybe. A neat example of this was an UKSA 2020/21 Arts Category winner, namely English National Ballet’s partnership with cruise company Cunard. Dubbed Dance the Atlantic, the partnership involved live ENB performances taking place on board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 ship. Guests on board were also invited to watch ENB’s morning ballet class and afternoon rehearsals, and take part in dance workshops. 

RA’s Charlotte Appleyard used the Culture Bar podcast to speculate on ways arts organisations might use their expertise to generate new revenues: “We have very famous lates at the RA, which always sell out and they’re extraordinary, they take over the whole building — a thousand people in one night. Do we take them off site? Do we sell that expertise elsewhere?” This model could incorporate sponsors.

The fossil fuel debate will resurface: The lack of live exhibitions during 2020 meant that oil giant BP wasn’t under as much scrutiny as it has been in previous years. But this month’s protest at the British Museum shows the issue of fossil fuel firms sponsoring the arts hasn't disappeared. Similarly, in April 2021, The Science Museum attracted criticism for inviting Shell to be sponsor of its Our Future Planet Exhibition. As UKSA has reported before, the issue doesn’t just centre on fossil fuels, with some other sectors also deemed inappropriate partners for the arts. As the sector seeks to dig itself out of a huge financial hole, this could prove to be a key commercial debate.

For further reading on why arts sponsorship can make sense for a wide array of brands, try following this link.

View the 2022 Winners

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