Commerce and Culture: an Artful Alliance

Corporate sponsorships of museums and exhibitions benefit both partners. It works best when the public sees the connection

Artists have always sought rich patrons, and corporations understood long ago that culture brings prestige. Now galleries and museums are sharpening their styles too, exchanging scholarly habits for colorful logos and unstuffy strap-lines. Art institutions with an eye on visitor numbers are thinking not only about cash, but what these partnerships can do for their brands.

If most collaborations are marriages of convenience, Habitat — a furniture, homeware and gardenware store — sponsoring this summer's exhibition on modernism at London's Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum is a marriage made in heaven. Nicole Newman, head of corporate partnerships at the V&A, explains why the association with Habitat, which has a long-standing connection with modernist-inspired design, works so well.

"The best sorts of sponsorships are where the core messages from the exhibition's subject matter have a direct connection with the sponsor brand. Here the fit is pretty much perfect. The association with Habitat enhances what we are doing by giving us a profile in the high-street and builds on the V&A's original mission, which was to make design relevant to as many people as possible."

A visit to Habitat's store on Tottenham Court Road in London backs up Newman's claims. Placed prominently in the window is an array of modernist-style furniture and accessories accompanied by display boards promoting the exhibition. Habitat is running talks and events, aimed at "bringing modernism to life," that coincide with the show.

It is unclear how many people these in-store jollies — which range from an evening "crash course in modernism" to an open-top bus tour of key modernist buildings — will bring to the exhibition. Nonetheless, it is apparent that the V&A and Habitat can attract more publicity working together than acting alone. Says Newman: "On our own, we would get coverage in the arts sections of the press; with Habitat, we also get into the consumer press."

The exhibition provides a theme for Habitat's spring collection and a handy talking point for getting merchandise profiled in the style pages. Emma Underhill, Habitat's art consultant, understands the importance of creating a buzz. "From the content of magazines to the interiors of our homes, modernism is very much the word on everyone's lips at the moment," she says. "Obviously we anticipate a rise in footfall and modernism product sales."

The collaboration adds depth to Habitat's brand, as well as boosting trade. As a high-street retailer targeting a fickle market of upwardly mobile urban customers, Habitat has a pressing need to create points of difference between itself and the crowd of home furnishing stores, such as Muji, The Pier and IKEA, that compete on its turf. It is a need the modernist association plays into perfectly by referencing the design values the company claims it epitomizes.

Habitat is not the only style-conscious retailer that the V&A has been associated with this spring. Fashion store Topshop sponsored a niche exhibition on the Italian fashion guru and trend-spotter, Anna Piaggi. As with Habitat, the connection benefits both parties, says Newman. "The exhibition fits with how Topshop is positioning itself as a brand that is intelligent and at the cutting edge of fashion. For us, it's clearly a good thing to be associated with a very successful fashion brand and to have access to their audiences. I think that Topshop will have seen us as fairly young and hip."

The legend "fairly young and hip" sits comically on the lofty Victorian pile that is the V&A. But the logic of using brand partnerships to connect with a constituency that stretches far beyond the art-literate elites to whom galleries and museums have traditionally appealed is undeniable. Claire Eva heads the marketing department at Tate Britain, an art gallery which has revamped its image and used tie-ups with high-street chains, such as restaurant Wagamama — which focuses on nutritious food — to awaken people's interest in art. The most extensive collaboration to date has been with the coffee chain Caffè Nero, which publicized Tate Britain's 2003 Turner and Venice exhibition by carrying pictures of the Doge's Palace on a million takeaway coffee cups. "It fits with the idea of the gallery being a lifestyle brand and supports Caffè Nero's wish to be seen more as a connoisseur's coffee," says Eva.

Signing up an official media partner increases the value of collaborating with high-street brands by securing free advertising space and by providing opportunities to run joint promotions angled at the publication's readership. For example, the V&A has teamed up with the liberal-leaning Observer for the modernist exhibition; Tate Britain is allying itself to the more conservative Sunday Telegraph for the forthcoming exhibition on the nineteenth century English landscape artist, John Constable.

There should always be some point of connection between the commercial and cultural partners, notes Newman. So what connects the V&A's forthcoming exhibition, showcasing the extravagant gifts of the renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, with the exhibition's sponsor, Deloitte (which boasts auditing, consultancy and tax advice among its services)? A prodigious facility for discovering solutions, at least according to Newman who asserts, "Leonardo was the greatest solution-finder in history and solution-finding is at the heart of Deloitte."

The reality is prosaic. From the cultural brand's perspective, cash is always welcome. For the commercial sponsor, being associated with a major exhibition brings prestige, plus valuable opportunities to impress clients. Ben Weaver, founder of cultural brand consultancy General Assembly, states, "Corporate brands aren't necessarily looking to the public when they provide sponsorship; often the impetus comes from getting to use the venue during the exhibition for entertaining and corporate hospitality." What is important, he argues, is that when a theme is generated it should be "salient" and not so labored that it feels like a "force-fit."

A visit earlier this year to sculptor Rachel Whiteread's exhibition at Tate Modern, the sixth in a series of artworks commissioned by Unilever (manufacturer of brands in foods, home care and personal care) inspired admiration for the artist and respect for the generous sponsor. That is until the heavy-handed blurb put out by Unilever linking the "vitality" and "creativity" of its mission — a mission which includes within its corporate oeuvre "I Can't Believe it's Not Butter," Pot Noodle and Hellmann's Dancing Dollop — to that of the commissioned artists was spotted.

Arts and business are coming together for mutual gain. But to win the kudos they aspire to, deep-pocketed businesses should wear their culture lightly and allow the talent of their partners to speak for itself.

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