Yoko Ono and her River Bed artwork at the Guggenheim in Bilbao
Stepping out: Yoko Ono and her River Bed artwork at the Guggenheim in Bilbao © Getty

A surge of idealism prompted the cultural rebuilding of Europe after the second world war. The political classes took seriously anything that would contribute to a newfound feeling of harmony and goodwill among its member states.

The arts fitted the bill, with a range of initiatives – collaborations, tours, visits – that emphasised the unity of European culture. Prominent was the Edinburgh International Festival, founded in 1947, to provide a “platform for the flowering of the human spirit”.

Those words prefigured a golden age for European culture. Its great orchestras and accomplished theatre troupes became accessible to more and more people thanks to generous support from governments that needed to find new, softer ways of expressing national pride. There was a steady rise in museum and gallery attendance; record box-office receipts were recorded in the performing arts.

And the arts proved good for business. Companies saw the synergy between the promotion of their corporate values and their association with wholesome cultural projects. Business sponsorship boomed in the UK. In the rest of Europe, it blossomed more slowly but there was nevertheless a growing social consensus around the importance of culture.

This was demonstrated by the construction of the Centre Georges Pompidou in the centre of Paris in 1977, a head-spinning architectural masterpiece by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. It took cultural audacity and signalled the arrival of a new phenomenon: the multi-use arts centre, admired for its otherworldly appearance, loved for its bold and eclectic programming, and used widely as a social gathering space.

French president François Mitterrand planned a series of grand projets that would transform the Parisian skyline, and place the arts at the centre of his nation’s political discourse.

Today, the attraction of a thriving arts scene is taken for granted. The link between cultural creativity and business success was formalised by American urban theorist Richard Florida, whose work at the beginning of the current century charted the way that metropolitan areas containing “high bohemians” – artists, musicians, technology workers, gay people – prospered because of the favourable environment; which in turn attracted more creative talents, creating virtuous circles of urban regeneration.

In 1997, exactly 20 years after the Pompidou Centre, came the project that most clearly spelt out the newly-lauded link between culture and economic wellbeing: the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The Basque city’s dilapidated port area was visually transformed by Frank Gehry’s remarkable design. But it was also revivified to an extent that no one had imagined. Tourists flocked to see the new building. Visitor spending in the first three years of its opening raised more than €100m in taxes for the regional government.

The phenomenon was labelled the “Bilbao effect” but Gehry had no idea that the effect would become a global template for regeneration through culture. “I remember all these meetings, where people would talk about their hopes for a commercial uplift,” he recalled in an interview with the Financial Times last year. “But it didn’t register as a possibility with me. I thought that these guys believed in the tooth fairy if they thought a building could do that.”

The enduring success of Bilbao, now a tourist attraction bringing in around 1m visitors a year, chimes with another 21st-century intervention from the tooth fairy – the booming interest in contemporary art. This has sparked a new wave of museum building and a burgeoning of art fairs, with European venues prominent: London’s Frieze fair, Paris’s FIAC, and Art Basel.

The popularity of an art form that was previously seen as difficult and esoteric has encouraged business to align itself with contemporary ideas and values. Brand managers have been quick to identify their clients with the new, open cultural climate, to show off their receptiveness to fresh ideas and their willingness to innovate.

In the spring of 2008 investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort launched a poster campaign that used Jimi Hendrix and Maria Callas, geniuses both, but scarcely noted for the quality of their common sense. The slogan was: “Unexpected viewpoints. Radical thinking. Inspiration. Nothing inspires more than advice you didn’t expect.” A few months later, came something we really didn’t expect: the near-collapse of the financial system.

Notwithstanding that unfortunate example, a new relationship between arts and business has been forged that is perceived as mutually beneficial. For business, the association with arts institutions is a symbolic commitment to a world of intellectual flux. For the arts, business sponsorship provides a much-needed revenue stream.

The UK’s mixed funding model, balancing government support with private investment, is widely admired in Europe, although the suspicion in many countries is that cash-strapped governments will use any increase in private sponsorship as an excuse to reduce its own funding commitments.

Karl Lagerfeld at the launch of the Trevi Fountain project
When in Rome: Karl Lagerfeld at the launch of the Trevi Fountain project, funded by Fendi © AFP

In Italy, for example, governments have encouraged companies to support national heritage initiatives that are considered unaffordable or politically unacceptable in times of economic hardship: witness the €25m contribution by luxury goods manufacturer Tod’s to help restore Rome’s Colosseum, and the fashion house Fendi’s €2m Trevi Fountain repair project.

The postwar consensus has been replaced by a sophisticated, multi-layered interplay between business, government and the arts that will surely see many more twists. There remains a number of uncertainties.

First, while contemporary art can more than hold its own in the cultural marketplace, the same is not true of more traditional, “high” culture forms that helped make Europe an artistic powerhouse. The Vienna State Opera is never going to be hip, cool or cutting edge. (Indeed, its audiences have a reputation for lustily booing any crass attempts at making it so.) It has been, and will remain, heavily reliant on state support. How long will it continue at present levels?

Second, thanks to technology, the arts world has never been so global in its reach. This raises the spectre of the world’s dominant arts organisations becoming global providers of content: New York’s Metropolitan Opera raises tens of millions of dollars from its live broadcasts around the world. That world, in any case, is being sharply recalibrated: the most ambitious cultural programme is in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, which has plans for both a Louvre and a Guggenheim museum. Can Europe keep up?

Third, the changing demographics of most major European cities, which host increasingly itinerant populations, is affecting their attitudes towards their own culture. Civic pride is one of the most important determinants of cultural activity. The success of the Manchester International Festival, established in 2007 and now one of the world’s most important arenas for new work, rests on the city’s determination to make its illustrious history better known, and has been generously supported by local funding.

Finally, such has been the pace of technological innovation in business, that it is fast becoming the equal, if not dominant, creative force in its partnerships with the arts.

The collaboration between Google Earth and Madrid’s Prado Museum, enabling highly detailed scrutiny of the gallery’s masterpieces, is as much a technological revelation as an artistic one. The recent David Bowie exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum succeeded because of Sennheiser’s contribution of high-quality headphones for every visitor.

This is how an optimistic version of the future looks: the creativity of the artist and the business leader working together, helping to bring a different kind of idealism back to the question of Europe’s cultural health.

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