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London museums find individuals are still more generous than corporations

One spectacular example is the Hotung Gallery in the British Museum, funded through £2 million from the Hong Kong businessman Joseph Hotung

In the experience of London’s galleries such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, individuals are more generous than corporations. A corporation rarely comes in with as munificent a sum of money as an individual—one spectacular example is the Hotung Gallery in the British Museum for which the Hong Kong businessman Joseph Hotung gave £2 million. Corporations have to be responsible for their giving to members of the board, and look for a quid pro quo in any sponsorship scheme.

Nevertheless, sponsorship is vital to the visual arts in Britain and with the slowing down of government support to museums, it enables pictures to be restored, exhibitions to be mounted and galleries to be renovated.

The business of matching sponsors with exhibitions is well developed in Britain, with no suggestion, as in Holland, that sponsors are affecting the subject or nature of exhibitions. Although some projected exhibitions may be cancelled for lack of sponsorship, many do go ahead without and no London gallery, including the privately funded Royal Academy, will say that sponsorship or the lack of it dictates which shows it puts on for the public. Firms with a name for leaping into the breach at the last moment are Silhouette Eyewear (Egon Schiele and Tibet at the RA), Martini and Rossi and Glaxo.

Since the recession, many companies have been looking for more value for money in their corporate sponsorship strategy. Andrea Nixon at the Tate says, “Sponsorship is a moving target—what they are doing one year they may not be doing next”. The main reasons remain image, press coverage and corporate entertaining, with an eye to the target audience. Attendance figures are a strong pull for sponsors: the Royal Academy has one of the best track records here, pointing to the fact that while the highly successful Picasso show at the Tate this year attracted around 297,000 visitors, their Monet exhibition in 1990 pulled in 600,000. Another card held by the RA is that they hold fifty-two cross-track sites for posters in the London underground. In addition, the Academy has developed an “underwriting” scheme for sponsors as a guarantee against loss. The sponsor only has to pay for the difference between income and cost, which may mean that they end up with nothing to pay at the end of the day.

Geoffrey House, who is in charge of seeking exhibition sponsorship at the British Museum, says that, “Sponsorship works best if there is a confluence of interests. Sponsors are interested in the subject and in meeting the curators who will be using their money, not in advertising”. A propos of their current exhibition “Greek gold: Jewellery of the Classical World” he explains that The British Museum, together with the Hermitage and Metropolitan Museum had been looking for some time for a sponsor for all three exhibition stops, and in the end a personal contact of one of the show’s curators brought in Cartier.“If an exhibition of Greek jewellery fits in with what Cartier are doing it works. Without Cartier it could not have happened.”

The National Gallery has been especially successful in attracting sponsorship whether it be ABN-AMRO’s payment of the entire production costs of the newly published Companion Guide to the National Gallery, allowing it to be sold at £7.50 per copy, or American Express’s support of the Microgallery in the Sainsbury Wing to allow visitors to use it for free. Esso is sponsoring the exhibitions in the Making and Meaning series (“The young Michelangelo” opens 19 October) which allows no entry fee to be charged. Glaxo, a corporate benefactor, is about to support the Spanish still-life show which opens next February. Neil MacGregor, director of the gallery, points out, “We can’t send paintings out easily so getting people into the gallery is very important for us”. He also recognises a feeling “of obligation on the part of the private sector to do things that used to be done by taxation”—the underlying theme to British sponsorship.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Individuals still more generous than corporations"

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 41 October 1994