Writing on photography

The Cultural Debt of Corporate Sponsorship

I often work in museums and galleries and so I know full well that corporate sponsorship is a fact of life for the arts in the UK. With government arts budgets slashed, big institutions have to look wherever they can to make up the shortfall. The National Portrait Gallery today announced that the international law firm Taylor Wessing would continue to sponsor the museum’s prestigious portrait prize through until 2018. It’s difficult to get a particularly detailed sense of what Taylor Wessing do. According to the firm’s site they have a presence in a vast array of legal proficiencies including banking and finance, capital markets, commercial agreements, competition, corporate, and so on. They also apparently have a large (but inevitably confidential) private client list, ‘offer a unique and integrated service for the ultra-wealthy’ and advise amongst other things on ‘the protection of wealth from taxation’ (update: That page has since been hidden/moved, but I’m leaving the dead link because I think it’s revealing in itself).

One of the issues with corporate sponsorship is its insidious nature, people get used to it, don’t criticise it or even fail to recognise how deep it runs into our cultural institutions. I know someone who once believed that ‘Taylor Wessing’ was the name of a noted portrait photographer, after all why on earth would a portrait photography competition be named after a law firm? Obviously because the relationship between arts institutions and corporations is about more than art and good deeds, it also acts as a form of cultural whitewashing or laundering. Companies trade their money for the good name of the sponsored institutions, and the generally positive public relations karma of philanthropy. Perhaps sometimes that’s a price worth paying to keep the arts relatively free and well funded, but we need scrutinise these relationships in order to make that determination.

The benefits of this relationship can be much more tangible for the donors than just good will, and likewise the cost to us, as consumers of art, can be more than just a rather unseemly association. As Hans Haacke has pointed out these sorts of donations are usually tax deductible for the donating company. This again perhaps isn’t a bad thing in itself if it encourages philanthropy, but when the donation is towards an exhibition which the public have to pay to see (like the NPG’s portrait prize) then in effect the public are subsiding an event which is a tax write off for the sponsoring company. Since photographers also pay a fee to enter their photographs to the prize, that point might be extended to their entry fee as well. When everyone is paying for something it also of course raises the question of where it’s all going.

Haacke remains one of the relatively few artists to consistently draw attention to the awkward relationship between artists, institutions and donors. His seminal work Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 brilliantly revealed the shady real estate dealings of one of New York’s biggest real estate groups, which predominantly rented substandard slum properties to ethnic minorities. There was much speculation at the time that the Shapolsky group were connected to the trustee board of the Guggenheim Museum, who resented the work and cancelled a forthcoming solo show of Haacke’s work in response. When the curator of the show defended the work he was fired.

Critiquing these relationships is dangerous, and as Haacke’s example demonstrates, these corporate relationships can profoundly shape the type of work that is seen and promoted, and the public discourse that work helps to make possible. I think it’s worth noting that a representative from Taylor Wessing usually participates in the judging of the submitted work for the portrait prize, and the same is the case for other major prizes sponsored by private firms. Assuming that the job of artists is to act as the critical conscience of the societies they operate in, corporate sponsorship of the arts is at it’s very best an uneasy and unnatural partnership, and at worse one which threatens one of art’s most vital functions. Sponsorship and patronage might be a long-standing fact of artistic life, and it might at the present time be particularly necessary, but artists and institutions should never see it as anything more than a deal with the devil. It’s a cultural debt in many sense of the phrase, and in time it will need to be paid back.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography