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The Next Iconic Partnerships?

Posted by Jonathan Tuchner

If you visit Tate Modern during the next few days, go down the ramp and turn right into The Tanks. On the opposite wall you will find images and notes celebrating thirteen years of the Unilever Series at the Turbine Hall.


It is a quiet celebration; a gentle place to reflect on what has arguably been the most significant arts and business partnership over the past decade or so. Many will forever recall the glow of Ólafur Elíasson’s The Weather Project, the thrill of Test Site by Carsten Höller, or the structure of Rachel Whiteread’s 2005 Embankment. Unilever’s money made all this happen.


Tino Sehgal’s These Association is the final work in the Unilever-sponsored series, which has attracted almost 30 million visitors over the past dozen years. Unilever says “It was planning a change of direction in its sponsorship programme, which is more focused on sustainability and the environment.” Where does that leave the arts?


Between 2000 and 2012, Unilever provided £4.4 million sponsorship in total, including a renewal deal of £2.2 million for a period of five years which was agreed in 2008. This is big money for arts partnerships and it created huge public interest and media profile for Unilever.


Unilever has had a long and important relationship with the arts over many years. This has ranged from the creation of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight through to in-house amateur dramatics in the 1960s and an astonishing programme called Catalyst which ran over much of the last decade using the arts to inspire and engage their staff.


Their relationship with Tate began when Niall Ferguson was in charge and I recall him early on saying it was his passion for art that drove the investment. Clearly there was passion but what was the business case?


The rationale seemed to revolve more on the important task of promoting and supporting the Unilever group name rather than the individual brands that they make.  Then again, could, or should, (or even would) a publicly funded gallery promote the many individual brands that make up the portfolio of a consumer goods company who sponsors them?


Does it look strange if a gallery is happy to sell a copy of Andy Warhol’s print of a Campbell’s Soup Can in their shop but refuse to sell the soup itself in their cafe?


The end of the Unilever series follows fairly hot on the heels of the end of the Orange Prize for Fiction. Following the London Olympics, will 2012 be remembered as the year sport became essential to our lives and the public’s belief in the arts fell away?


As we lose two of the best known, most widely celebrated arts and business partnership—is there a wider significance to these business decisions? More importantly who can pick up the mantle, and become our next high profile partners of the arts?


New kids on the block 


We feel cautiously optimistic. There are always new players coming to the fore, be they locally or nationally.  We recently saw the first in the Ignition Series created by Sky Arts. Sky Arts Ignition: Doug Aitken – The Source is a fast moving portrait of modern creativity housed on Liverpool’s historic Albert Dock in a structure designed by Aitken in collaboration with British architect David Adjaye OBE.


The commission forms part of the seventh Liverpool Biennial, and will be Aitken’s first public realm installation in the UK, showcasing his ambitious approach to contemporary art.


James Hunt, director of Sky Arts says, “Sky Arts Ignition Series is not just about the creation of artwork, it is about collaboration and shared experiences with astounding artists like Doug Aitken and great institutions such as Tate Liverpool.”


There is more good news—Travelex’s partnership with the National Theatre going from strength to strength, the RSC announcing record profits, Bloomberg’s work with contemporary dance and new art.


When Arts & Business was founded over thirty years ago the juxtaposition of the words ‘arts’ and ‘business’ felt both a necessary clarion call, and a leap of faith—proclaiming as it did that the future of both the arts, and of business, would burn more brightly if they worked closer together.


The arts simply cannot flourish without the support of business, and the relative importance of business to the arts will continue to increase in the years ahead.

Arts and commerce, culture and business, creativity and philanthropy are all inextricably linked. Moreover the stakes have never been higher. If we collectively fail to deliver on the requisite opportunities for growth, we place more of the cultural vitality of our communities at risk.


Arts & Business is about to release our full analysis of the state of private investment in the arts.  Yes, we are are at a crucial juncture, a cross-roads, call it what you will.  The Government no longer sees itself as the most “reliable funder of culture”; the economy shrinks, grass root sport is all the rage—where are the arts in all this?


As this new act unfolds in the drama of arts funding, with new players playing lead roles, we know there are opportunities for business growth.


There will always be businesses keen to snuggle up to the arts community as it gives businesses a key into its biggest commodity, namely human thought. This is a good thing.


At the same time there are too many people yet to discover the ecstasy, spirituality, sustenance and meaning art can bring to their lives.


When they started their partnerships, Unilever clearly understood this, so did Orange.  Soon, there will be other names to join their ranks in recognising how starting a partnership with the arts can bring real advantages. Business brands, and the support, know-how and passion of their people need to be at the core of all new arts activities.


*Originally posted on Arts & Business Team Blog and ARTSblog.

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