How about dinner on the stage of the latest production of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), surrounded by sets and props? Or perhaps a walk-on part in a film? Otherwise, you could meet some of the world’s most talented orchestral players or have a gallery named after you.

These are among incentives offered to potential sponsors, both corporate and individual, by theatres, orchestras, museums and other arts institutions. In an age of austerity, the challenge for organisations is to be all the more creative in wooing potential patrons.

Sponsorship, particularly corporate, is never just about giving, however charitable the gesture. Companies may deny it, but they expect something in return and, indeed, it should be a two-way relationship, with benefits on both sides. But how do arts institutions compare in the beauty parade of what they can offer? And how do the benefits to sponsors compare between, say, a theatre and a museum?

“It’s really important that it’s a creative relationship,” says Catherine Mallyon, the RSC’s executive director. The theatre group is particularly excited about next year’s international tour, made possible with support from financial services group JPMorgan, enabling it to reach new audiences in China, Hong Kong and the US. To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, beginning in February, the touring programme will include established actors such as Sir Antony Sher appearing in the Henry IV plays and emerging ones such as Alex Hassell in Henry V, following strong reviews. “This is the first time we’ve toured on this scale,” Mallyon says. “This is an exciting moment.”

JPMorgan, which sponsors cultural organisations worldwide, prefers not to specify figures involved, but association with prestigious arts “brands” can do wonders for opening business doors. The firm funds different areas of the arts because it realises that each draws different clientele.

Alex Hassell in an RSC production of Shakespeare’s Henry V
Alex Hassell in an RSC production of Shakespeare’s Henry V © Keith Pattison/RSC

On the RSC tour, it will invite clients to productions, receptions and behind-the-scenes tours, with the chance to chat with actors, directors and designers, among others. “It’s a top-end experience for those clients,” Mallyon says. “It’s relationship development for them.”

The RSC is also collaborating with Google and Samsung, which are both interested in harnessing the latest technology for the theatre’s digital programmes. Google has worked with the RSC on social media and streamed rehearsals, while the Korean group has created the RE:Shakespeare smartphone app aimed at students.

But such high-profile sponsors are hard to find in substantial numbers, which is all the more reason to make the few feel extra special. Referring to the RSC’s production of Matilda The Musical, Mallyon says: “There’s a great swinging scene: we’ve had sponsors on the swings; we’ve had them on the stage . . . Richard II has an enormous hydraulics system that lifts the floor up and down in the final scene. We’ve had sponsors actually in that space, learning how the hydraulics worked. It’s just very different from a wine and cheese party.”

At the National Theatre, benefits for sponsors include the chance to hear a director discuss themes in a play or have a preview of sets and costume designs. Some even appeared as extras in London Road, Rufus Norris’s film adaptation of the National Theatre musical about the murders of prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006.

Graham Barker, a human resources consultant, and his wife Joanna, an investment manager, support causes such as hospices, but they also see the arts as “important” for society and the National Theatre as “an outstanding beacon of excellence”. He works as a volunteer alongside the National’s professional fundraisers, encouraging others to donate. In return, he says, the Barkers are made to feel involved in a way that, “in my experience, is not equalled by anybody else”. He was invited to be an extra for a day in a street party scene in London Road — “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life”, he recalls. He was also among six National volunteers who were taken to the London Road film set in Essex. “I thought we’d be watching from the side lines. But we were in the thick of it, being filmed.”

The London Road street party scene, with National Theatre volunteer Graham Barker, front right
The London Road street party scene, with National Theatre volunteer Graham Barker, front right © Nicola Dove

Among the pied pipers leading sponsors to the music sector is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO). It has captured imaginations with its “Adopt a Musician” scheme, which offers the chance “to get to know your adopted musician”. Section leaders cost £700 while the chief conductor is £5,000. The project has attracted individual philanthropists rather than companies but has been “very successful”, says Millicent Jones, the RLPO’s executive director of marketing. “Nearly all the 80-plus musicians are sponsored.”

In the US, sponsorship figures can be vast. In New York, for example, “signage, prime seating and pre-show dinner” are among the benefits for the “$100,000 Corporate Council Sponsor” at the Metropolitan Opera, and the Hood Museum of Art in Dartmouth, New Hampshire, received an extraordinary $10m gift last year. “That’s way beyond anything even the big London guys can think of at the moment,” says Steven Parissien, director of Compton Verney, the art gallery in Warwickshire, central England, which is comparable in size to the Hood. Britain, he adds, has much to learn from America and its culture of giving.

Beyond the big cities, the search for sponsorship is an uphill struggle for British regional arts institutions. Compton Verney, a Grade I-listed Georgian mansion in 120 acres of Grade II*-listed Capability Brown parkland, has a significant collection as well as a programme of temporary exhibitions, including watercolours to be loaned by the Royal Collection.

But Parissien says: “Because a lot of corporates rightly want their staff to visit — and let’s assume they’re all based in London or Edinburgh — it’s just too far for them to come.” He says state funding for the arts is decreasing and that the government is looking to private philanthropists to fill the gap, as it does in the US. “What we need to grow is this obligation that the Americans have,” he says.

Colin Tweedy is one of the leading authorities on arts sponsorship, as former head of Arts & Business, part of the UK’s Business in the Community non-profit organisation. More than 20 years under Tweedy’s stewardship, Arts & Business attracted more than £1bn from the private sector for the arts: “We can’t claim it all — it was a matching grant programme,” he says. But that was a huge achievement for the business and arts communities. We did our bit . . . The arts were transformed by that.”

Tweedy fears for arts sponsorship today because so many organisations have abandoned corporate sponsors, focusing increasingly on individual philanthropy. “If we neglect the business community, we will damage private sector funding generally,” he warns.

Dinner on stage for supporters at the RSC in Stratford
Dinner on stage for supporters at the RSC in Stratford

There seems little excuse when business sponsorship is tax deductible, he says: “It’s a marketing activity, which you can offset.”

Part of the problem, he adds, is that the UK no longer has a real picture of what’s happening. “Since 2012, the figures aren’t available,” he says. “So it’s a complete guesstimate. I sense that the corporate sector is now dropping. Individuals may be dropping. We don’t know because no one’s doing the survey.” Funding body Arts Council England says a survey is “in the works”.

There is also some nervousness about corporate sponsorship. Last year, the UK’s Museums Association asked its members to consider whether accepting money from sponsors risks compromising museum values.

There were jitters over a legal case brought by environmentalists against the Tate galleries and BP. In 2014, an information tribunal ordered the gallery to give details of its BP sponsorship. The Tate had initially refused, claiming that the information could intensify protests and harm its ability to raise money from other companies. The case was brought by environmental campaigner Brendan Montague, supported by the charity Platform, whose spokeswoman, Anna Galkina, said the sponsorship deal provided BP “with a veneer of respectability when in reality it is trashing the climate”.

The tribunal accepted evidence that “arts sponsorship can be understood as a means of enhancing, maintaining or repairing BP’s brand”. The Tate was forced to reveal its BP sponsorship between 1990 and 2006 totalled £3.8m.

But this is a rare instance. Most sponsorships are seen as mutually beneficial. At London’s National Gallery, corporate benefactors who pay an annual £35,000 are offered two dinners or two receptions in the galleries for their clients. Credit Suisse, its sponsor since 2008, developed an app allowing the public to view an imagined recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s studio and discover more about his paintings and their context in an exhibition at the gallery in 2011-12. Hoardings outside the gallery, in place during maintenance work, promoted the bank, the exhibition and the app. Credit Suisse realises culture “has no language barriers” and its extensive sponsorship includes long-term partnerships with renowned arts institutions, from the Kunsthaus Zürich art gallery to the New York Philharmonic orchestra.

Other sponsors are drawn to projects with an obvious link to their own business interests. They include City lawyers Linklaters, which sponsored a British Library exhibition this year on the nation’s legal charter, the Magna Carta. “The relevance of our Magna Carta exhibition to our sponsor, Linklaters, was clear from the very start,” says Alex Michaels, the British Library’s corporate relations manager. “We involved them right from the start and, throughout the period of sponsorship, they were able to leverage an extensive programme of activities, including an evening event around the unification of the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts, to develop and deepen relationships with their key stakeholders.”

Dirk Heinrich, managing director for Germany and Austria of Axa Art, an insurer, says his company has “two targets” in sponsoring art fairs and specific art projects worldwide: “brand visibility” and underlining that Axa is “part of the art community”. Its art fair sponsorships include tours with art historians and educational talks.

Sponsorships can also instil a passion for the arts in sponsors or their guests that they perhaps didn’t know they had. Mallyon says some people have attended RSC performances as “curious” corporate guests, having had little experience of the theatre. “They find themselves captivated,” she says. “We have actually developed quite regular individual audience attendance from people who’ve come to a corporate event. They then have a relationship with us, which is a double benefit.”

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