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Attracting corporate dollars for innovative art

In keeping with their business image, corporate givers are often thought of as cautious and conservative types. When earmarking funds for the performance world, it seems logical that they would lean toward the tried, true, and tested. But strict logic and conventional wisdom don't always apply to the lively arts. Surprisingly, corporate funds have played a part in some of the most innovative and experimental work on the current performing scene.

A highly visible example is the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a complex of music and theater auditoriums nestled in a grand old building not far from the East River. Events go on year-round at BAM, including seasons of chamber music and ballet. But its most celebrated offering is an annual ``Next Wave'' festival devoted to the new and unusual -- be it a five-hour ``minimalist'' opera by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, a two-evening ``performance art'' extravaganza by Laurie Anderson, or a night of Pina Bau sch dance-theater on a stage awash in water.

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All of which is fine for audiences that crave adventure. But it sounds a mite offbeat for corporate participation. Does an institution like BAM face special challenges when seeking donations for such unusual material?

Yes, says Karen Hopkins, vice-president for planning and development. ``It's taken hard work to carve out a niche for ourselves,'' she says, ``and to get corporations to see us as a major cultural institution.''

The effort has been helped by the academy's reputation. In approaching the unconventional ``Next Wave'' festival, Miss Hopkins maintains, ``corporations felt they were in good hands, because BAM is an old and formidable institution with a history of producing new work.''

BAM's most important support comes from foundations, but fund-raisers are hoping for more corporate help in the future, as well as a continuing flow of government and private contributions. Among organizations that have funded BAM are AT&T, the CIGNA Corporation, Manufacturers Hanover, and the Best Products Foundation.

A striking example is the sponsorship of last year's avant-garde opera hit, ``Einstein on the Beach,'' by WilliWear Ltd., a clothing company. Similarly, the A&S store chain sponsors BAM chamber music; the Consolidated Edison utility contributes to community programs; Remy Martin Amerique sponsored this year's opening-night dance-theater event; Brooklyn Union Gas sponsors the BAM bus that brings Manhattan patrons across the river.

What's new in BAM fund-raising is a growing emphasis on ``consortium special projects,'' Hopkins says. ``First we ask a donor for general support. Then we may ask support for a special project. Then we may put together a consortium -- a partnership -- between many supporters on a single event, and ask them to work with each other.''

Such innovations are needed, she says, because ``the festival is getting bigger and bigger -- so our funding has to get bigger and bigger, too.''

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Not all progressive showcases are as big as BAM, however, or present such a steady stream of new works. When a theater operates on a small scale, no matter how brilliant, a different set of challenges is felt. Such is the case at the Performing Garage in lower Manhattan, where the Wooster Group has developed an international reputation under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte.

When seeking corporate support, this group's approach is basic and direct. ``We make proposals to everybody,'' says general manager Linda Chapman. ``We don't have the greatest success story, but we do best with groups that have been interested in us for a while. It's mostly a matter of getting them down here to see the work and cutting through any presuppositions they have -- that we're inaccessible, or that our work just isn't for them.''

One advantage the troupe recently gained is a major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, designed as a stimulus for corporate ``matching'' funds. But it isn't easy to grab the notice of big corporations when you're a theater company of modest resources and have a reputation for artistically radical work.

``It's easier for a presenting organization like BAM,'' says Berenice Reynaud, director of development for the Wooster company. ``They have new works steadily, so if one offends people, there'll be another one very soon to replace it. Our work is different: It takes a long time to complete, and we may go for a year without putting out a new piece. Also, corporations don't give money primarily to endorse things, but because they want to be seen as people who value the arts. They like giving to organizati ons with high visibility and new productions all the time. But we have a low profile.''

Much energy is spent, therefore, simply making the group's presence known. ``We write letters, make phone calls, send invitations, take advertisements, and do whatever we can,'' says Miss Reynaud. ``We often find that a corporation gives its attention to places like BAM or the Metropolitan Opera and has never heard of us. Sometimes they have heard of us, and that's not always good, either! They may feel we're too controversial.''

Reynaud has found, though, that help sometimes comes from an unexpected source: not the corporate trustees who vote on final decisions, but ``the corporate-giving staff'' made up of middle-level employees. ``Some of them are very familiar with the downtown arts and theater scene,'' she says.

Even when the Wooster Group finds a willing donor, the gift is likely to be less than huge. ``A small theater group like us gets $1,000 if we're lucky. The usual grant from a bank is $250 to $500.'' Yet the Wooster Group has garnered a fair share of support in recent years from such givers as Consolidated Edison, Philip Morris Inc., Columbia Pictures, and Bankers Trust.

What attracts corporations to offbeat art? A clue comes from BAM president Lichtenstein, who has suggested that national pride may play a part. According to this view, many ``Next Wave'' artists are new to American audiences but are well known in European countries, where much progressive art is incubated. Corporate and foundation givers in the United States are eager to show that there is support in their own nation for such American artists as Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, among others.

Another perspective comes from a corporate figure: Laurie Mallet, president of WilliWear, a BAM supporter. Calling experimental art a kind of ``research,'' she says it's related to ``the creative process that we also live with in fashion.''

``Part of the creative process is always anxious and uncertain,'' she adds. ``You never know what the results will be. But it's exciting to try new things. And it's good for us to be seen in a more intellectual surrounding, not just as a garment company. We may wish the final result [of a performance] were more exciting than it turns out to be. But we're always happy to be involved with the effort to create new work.''

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