Museums and fine arts institutions are pressured to conform to the ideologies of their financial supporters, and the more people art museums answer to, the more freedom they lose in the type of art they exhibit. The United States has increasingly privatized financial support for nonprofits, and corporations have rapidly caught on to the propagandist benefits of supporting prominent cultural institutions. Corporate investment in arts in particular originated after the Great Depression, when the United States Government offered tax exemptions for donations to nonprofit institutions. Private corporate funding for the arts increased dramatically towards the end of the 1960s and the recession of the 1970s and 1980s, when the government withdrew financial support.
Corporations quickly recognized the social implications of having their company’s name associated with an art institution. Mobil Gas referred to their contributions as a “good will umbrella,” and Exxon as a “social lubricant.” Especially for corporations involved in scandal, executives found opportunity in the prestige of art to lobby their interest in congress, which would serve as a shield against corporate misconduct. As one prominent artist, Hans Haacke explains in his essay Museums, Managers of Consciousness, “They recognized that a company’s association with art could yield benefits far out of proportion to a specific financial investment. Not only could such a policy attract sophisticated personnel, but it also projected an image of the company as a good corporate citizen and advertised its products—all things which impress investors.”
Museums in turn were eager to involve corporations. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art distributed pamphlets entitled The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of Good Business, to present to businesses interested in funding the Museum. Haacke offers another poignant explanation, “What the emergence of arts administration departments in business school demonstrates… is the fact that in spite of the mystique surrounding the production and distribution of art, we are now—and indeed have been all along—dealing with social organizations that follow industrial modes of operation”. As museums become more business-oriented and focused on safe bets and money-making exhibitions, exhibiting politically subversive works of art under the name of a corporate sponsor becomes almost impossible.
The tobacco giant Philip Morris has been one of the greatest sponsors in the last few decades of arts-related programming. You can read about exhibitions Philip Morris sponsored in a book called Art In Business that was donated to universities around the country by… Philip Morris. In one major study on corporate sponsorship as a tobacco marketing tool, researchers explained that corporate funding is used to associate a business with specific causes important to a target group, usually deemed difficult to reach through more traditional forms of advertising. According to the study, tobacco companies sponsored sports, events, and cultural activities targeted at the African American community, at the Hispanic community, and at women. Philip Morris highlights in Art In Business: Two Hundred Years of North American Indian Art, Masterworks from the Museum of the American Indian, Remember the Ladies… Women in America, 1750-1815, and Two Centuries of Black American Art. The elephant in the room is, would these exhibitions have existed had Philip Morris not agreed to sponsor them?
Helmsboro Country Unfolded, 1990, Hans Haacke
One danger of accepting tobacco money is allowing corporations like Philip Morris to associate their company name with positive social causes. In some instances, corporations spent more money on marketing campaigns for charities than they donated to the charities themselves. According to one survey on tobacco sponsorship, Philip Morris threatened to relocate its corporate headquarters and tried to get art institutions to lobby city council when New York City threatened to ban smoking in restaurants and public places. Philip Morris informed the New York City mayor’s office that if the company withdrew support, it would be a “dark day for the arts.” When a New York Times columnist tried to interview “any official or board member of any cultural organization supported by the tobacco giant” to talk about their lobbying efforts, none would comply.
In an essay entitled, Government Support for Unconventional Works of Art, artist Adrian Piper argues that the responsibility of funding art, especially politically subversive art, lies in the hands of a truly democratic government. Promoting provocative work is the key to “assault oppressive conventional attitudes that empower institutions at the expense of individuals,” according to Piper. She promotes the neutrality and informed opinion of a government appointed group of art world professionals who would award funding and combat “passive censorship” by withholding support from artists whose viewers “compete with or criticize the status quo.”
In an article entitled, Philip Morris’s Artworld Fix, Piper destroys the image of Philip Morris as a benevolent supporter of the arts. “Q: Why would Philip Morris support BOTH avant garde art AND ALSO Jesse Helms, who wants to kill public funding for it? A: Philip Morris and Jesse Helms are engaged in a joint partnership that will make the world safe for selling cigarettes.” Piper was outraged by the actions of Jesse Helms, a five-term senator from North Carolina fighting hard to get rid of government funding for the arts. If Helms succeeds in destroying public funding for the arts, Piper argues, then art institutes will have to rely on private funding, namely the money of Philip Morris, who in turn will have the power to dictate all artistic output. “And Philip Morris will be able to buy the silence of artists who want the opportunities afforded by their funding.”
The name of Philip Morris has slowly slipped away as tobacco becomes more and more taboo in the United States. If Philip Morris is no longer funding the arts, and if government is increasingly dropping support for artistic production, who IS sponsoring the fine arts nowadays, and why? Look at the corporate names plastered on the sides of museums, on the wall labels of exhibitions and on billboards and banners which litter the city for clues.
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