These are anxious days for those dependent on government largesse, even a national treasure like the Smithsonian Institution. With federal budget cuts as inevitable as the muggy Washington summer, the venerable group of museums is quietly holding out a tin cup to Corporate America.
The cup isn't coming back empty: Companies as diverse as Orkin, the bugcontrol outfit, Marvel Entertainment, publisher of Spiderman comic books, and Ford are anteing up big bucks to underwrite everything from an insect zoo to a birthday party for the Smithsonian. And more such arrangements are in the works.
CASHING IN. This isn't just old-fashioned corporate philanthropy, either. The Smithsonian has added a new twist to its sponsorships: The possibility that participating companies can turn a profit on their good will. Times Mirror, for example, made a $750,000 direct investment in a new multimedia exhibit called Ocean Planet. As a tie-in, the premiere issue of its Pop Sci for Kids focuses on the exhibit. It also hopes to cash in by selling an exhibition catalog ($39.95), souvenir magazine ($5.95), and CD-ROM game cartridge ($39.95). The company gets the profits from producing the items; the Smithsonian gets a markup and a 5% royalty, plus a 50% royalty on T-shirts and other souvenirs.
Times Mirror isn't the only company trying to leverage its Ocean Planet sponsorship. Ford Motor Co. figures the exhibit will attract environmentally conscious people--the sort who like to drive Explorer sport-utility vehicles. To be sure attendees get the point, Ford, which invested $5 million in Ocean Planet, parked a shiny new Explorer at the show's door. "The Smithsonian has to make sure it isn't too commercial," says Ford ad manager Randy C. Stewart. "But I had to make it commercial enough to sell more of our vehicles."
The bottom line for the Smithsonian: publicity and cash to augment its $306 million in annual government funding. But at what cost? Critics fear companies will try to influence the content of exhibits, that the Smithsonian name will be cheapened, or that new exhibits will veer toward the low-brow to meet business' need to reach a mass audience.
Smithsonian officials admit they're walking a fine line. T.C. Benson, development director of the National Museum of Natural History, concedes that the plan to name the bug displayafter Orkin, which came up with $500,000 for the exhibit, "curled some toes and raised some eyebrows" at the museum. To allay concerns, she says, sponsors must sign contracts guaranteeing that they won't meddle with exhibits.
The Smithsonian, nonetheless, lately has been widely criticized for modifying or canceling controversial exhibits. It dumped the Enola Gay display on Jan. 30, after protests by veterans' groups. And Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman agreed to change a Science in American Life exhibit after scientists, including some at a sponsor, the American Chemical Society, protested that it gave too much attention to problems such as radioactive waste and acid rain.
"EGG ON THEIR FACE." Nonetheless, the Smithsonian is forging ahead with plans to recruit corporate sponsors to underwrite its 1996 anniversary bash, which will include a 12-city tour of such museum treasures as George Washington's sword and Abraham Lincoln's top hat. In a deal similar to Olympic sponsorships, 10 companies will spend $10 million each for the right to use Smithsonian treasures in their advertising. The first taker: the Discover Card. Smithsonian development director Marie Mattson says the goal of such deals is for companies to use "the integrity of the Smithsonian" to enhance their own images.
Purists may have to get used to such commercialism. The museums clearly need more private-sector money. "The trick is to pull off an event in which both parties mutually benefit," says Ford's Stewart. "We don't want anyone to come up with egg on their face." Just cash in their pockets.
THE CORPORATE CONNECTION
Smithsonian projects sponsored by corporations
ORKIN INSECT ZOO (Opened September, 1993) Permanent educational exhibit on insects, sponsored by Orkin Pest Control.
ORKIN INVESTMENT: $500,000
SPIDERS! (Opened June, 1994) Traveling exhibit on spiders sponsored by Marvel Entertainment, which ,wns Spiderman.
MARVEL INVESTMENT: $1.2 MILLION
OCEAN PLANET (Opened Apr. 22, 1995) Designed to detail ocean ecology, the eight-month exhibit is sponsored by Times Mirror, Ford Motor, Motorola, and The Discovery Channel. In January, it will begin an 11-city tour ending in 1999.