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Corporate Support for the Arts: A Changing Landscape

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Over the course of my arts management career I have observed many trends: the fall in the proportion of tickets sold by subscription, more acceptance of new orchestral music and new operas, and the increasing number of productions transferred from regional theaters to Broadway, to name just a few.

But perhaps the most startling change has been the radical shift in the way large corporations support the arts.

Twenty-five-years ago, many corporations spread their philanthropic dollars across a wide array of arts organizations.

It was not uncommon for one corporation to give modest three or four digit gifts to dozens if not hundreds of organizations with a goal of giving visible support to the local community. Tables to arts galas typically would also be sold, in large measure, to local corporations. To arts organizations, these annual gifts were almost taken for granted; they seemed like an annuity.

Times have changed. Today, corporate giving is less about being a good corporate citizen and more about creating visibility for the corporation. Good will has been replaced by business objectives. And one cannot take any corporate gift for granted; it is hard work to receive a major corporate gift in today's environment.

This change is understandable. More corporations today have shareholders who are dispersed over a wider geographical area than decades ago. As a result, the current shareholders don't care as much about the relationship that the corporation has with local citizenry. They want profits that turn into higher share prices. The pressure to reduce costs experienced by most corporations in recent years has resulted in the elimination of many philanthropic activities that don't clearly and measurably contribute to the corporation's bottom line.

These days, arts organizations have to sell themselves to corporate donors; they have to be able to demonstrate that they are good business partners.

This change has broad implications for the fundraising endeavors of arts organizations. Those organizations that work actively to create visibility for their corporate partners can still develop strong and profitable relationships. But if an arts organization does not work aggressively to create an effective, implementable visibility plan for a major corporation, it is likely not to receive funding.

This is, of course, a slippery slope. How do we create visibility without bastardizing our art? Every arts organization must have clear rules on what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to providing visibility for potential corporate sponsors.

For those arts organizations with the skill, size and connections to create visibility for their corporate donors, corporate contributions can be very substantial. But for many smaller organizations, without a large audience base or with board members not part of high-end corporate circles, corporate giving is evaporating. While these organizations can still seek in-kind contributions from local companies, finding major gifts from large corporations has become increasingly difficult. These groups would do better to build their individual donor bases rather than trying to continue to try to obtain increasingly scarce corporate contributions.