Spacey’s Patron Bank of America Helps Restore Picasso, Courbet

Paying to restore a Rembrandt in Prague, sponsoring the season at London’s Old Vic Theatre, co-funding a Roy Lichtenstein show in Paris: It’s all in a year’s work for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Twenty-four recipients in 16 countries -- including Rembrandt’s “Scholar in his Study” (1634) and Courbet’s “The Painter’s Studio” (1854-55) -- will get cash from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project this year, the bank said this month. In other patronage, Roy Lichtenstein opens July 3 at Paris’s Pompidou Center (after Chicago, Washington and London), and the Royal Opera’s Benjamin Britten opera “Gloriana” is beamed on global cinema screens June 24.

At a time when companies are cutting arts patronage -- U.K. spending was little changed in the year to April 2012, after four annual drops, according to Arts & Business -- Bank of America has kept its global spend at some $40 million a year. That’s even as its shares have dropped by two-thirds since the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

Sponsorees, including Old Vic Artistic Director Kevin Spacey, say they are relieved.

Bank of America’s support has been “vast, across the board, and remarkably daring,” Spacey says in a telephone interview.

The actor remembers how, right before the global recession, he and director Sam Mendes asked the bank to back their 2009-2012 “Bridge Project” of transatlantic theater.

Backing Shakespeare

“Sam and I kept waiting for the phone to ring,” recalls Spacey, “that they were very sorry, but they were going to have to pull out of this crazy three-year sponsorship of bringing Shakespeare around the world. But that phone call never came.”

What’s in it for Bank of America?

“We have a pretty good record of choosing the things that are hot and get on the radar screen,” replies Rena DeSisto, the bank’s global arts and culture executive. In terms of brand value, “there’s a multiplier effect.”

Sponsorship once meant an executive picking a show and handing over money. Today it’s about “making sure it’s a partnership and we’re extracting benefits,” says DeSisto -- through education programs, family days, free-access days, and other exchanges.

Meanwhile, sponsorship prices have dropped with the shrinking donor pool.

“Years ago, in New York for example, you’d want to get in early to grab hold of the sponsorships that you really wanted,” says DeSisto. “Sometimes you almost had a bidding war.”

Plum Pickings

“There’s much less jockeying for the plum pickings,” she says. “You find yourself getting closer to the exhibit opening, and still no sponsor in the picture.”

Bank of America tends to support arts institutions in places where it has a large staff and clientele. Employees like to see their company “actually investing where they live and work,” explains DeSisto.

In 2010, the Louvre Museum received funds to restore “The Winged Victory of Samothrace,” as did the Reina Sofia in Madrid for the conservation of Picasso’s “Woman in Blue” (1901).

Why back the Old Vic? “It’s in an area of London that can use the excitement,” says DeSisto, describing the strip near Waterloo station where the theater sits.

It doesn’t hurt that the Old Vic is run by Spacey.

DeSisto remembers the time she invited the Hollywood star to address bank staff. He offered to screen his movie “Margin Call” (2011) -- about a financial executive who gets fired and realizes his bosses were cooking the books.

“I said, ’I think we’ll take a pass on that,’” DeSisto deadpans. “The financial people and traders were held up to be villainous -- I didn’t think the bank would appreciate the characterization. He understood.”

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars, Lance Esplund on U.S. art, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology, Richard Vines on food and Scott Reyburn on the art market.

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