Value of arts sponsorship lies in its niche appeal

The art world has an enduring value for brands despite often limited consumer appeal

When Lehman Brothers and HBOS hit the rocks earlier this year, the first question on most people's lips was probably not: 'What does this mean for the art world?'

But as the implications of the financial crisis filter down, the art world is left to ponder the loss of such wealthy backers. In its latest rep-ort, member-ship network and consultancy Art & Business (A&B) concludes: 'Confidence of businesses investing in the cultural sector in view of an economic down-turn is shaken, particularly when looking beyond 2008.'

Before the doom-mongers get too carried away, however, others, including HSBC and Deutsche Bank, continue to successfully use their art and culture sponsorships to drive their bottom lines, promote their brands and wield influence.

'Where they can, brands will retain key deals to give the impression of stability and stature,' says Pippa Collett, managing director of Sponsorship Consulting. 'However, I imagine there will be fewer new deals signed in the short term.'

One of the key benefits of art associations is the opportunity to reach key decision-makers, says Alun James, chief executive of Four Communications. 'Sport is typically more mass-market; arts and culture sponsorship is more about business relationships,' he says. 'It's about getting decision-makers into a relaxed environment.'

While sport may be of greater interest overall, the reverse seems true among the people in charge of the purse strings. Although what people say and what they do can be entirely different, a study of 471,000 people from the social elite, conducted by A&B in 2004, showed that plays, theatre and the arts are of more interest to this demographic than football and rugby.

Speaking at the 'Future Sponsorship' conference in Brussels last month, Matthew Patten, chief executive of cricket charity The Lord's Taverners, predicted: 'Being a force for good will become an essential part of the marketing and business mix, and the mainstream sponsorship industry, which created association marketing in the first place, will lead the way.'

One of the arts' biggest investors, Deutsche Bank, whose sponsorships include the Frieze Art Fair and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, is equally keen to push its grassroots work, such as its Arts & Education Awards partnership with Arts Council England, Arts & Business and MLA. The bank also issues its employees with a Culture Card, which entitles them to attend eight lectures a year at London's art galleries, as well as discounts at theatres and museums. Deloitte puts employee engagement at the heart of its annual three-day Deloitte Ignite event at the Royal Opera House through special offers and on-site events.

Likewise, Unilever, which sponsors the Unilever Series at Tate Modern, also runs an international education project alongside the sponsorship. The Unilever International Schools Art Project encourages creativity in schoolchildren across 36 countries.

HSBC, meanwhile, runs one of the world's most expansive global art and culture programmes, the HSBC Cultural Exchange, but along with its major projects it invests in cost-effective, low-budget schemes. Marah Winn-Moon, head of cultural sponsorship at HSBC, gives an example. 'We are sending a Kazakh poet to Canada for four months,' she says. 'Rather than run a soulless seminar about business opportunities, we will send a poet and set up business seminars around the event.'

 Looking forward

Collett warns the sector is going to experience a 'toothpaste tube' effect, however. 'Blockbuster and tightly targeted niche opportunities will still appeal; it's the middle ground that will be squeezed,' she says.

Although there are enduring arts sponsorships, deals tend to be shorter than those in sport. In this respect, sport has an advantage: Collett believes there is a good chance the economy will be in recovery by the time many of the major sports sponsorship deals expire.

The Tate provides an example of the trend toward short-term art sponsorships. While its partnership with Unilever dates back eight years, and will run at least until 2012, it also relies on sponsorships of individual exhibitions. For example, the Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern, which began in September and runs until February 2009, is sponsored by Fujitsu.

Few sectors are immune from the downturn, and art and culture is no exception. After pocketing £111m at Sotheby's auction earlier this year, artist Damien Hirst said: 'People would rather put their money into butterflies than banks'. The banks seem to agree.

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