Yo-Yo Ma was available for just one night.
When Minnesota Orchestra leaders learned they had the chance to bring the superstar cellist to Orchestra Hall — for the first time in 15 years — they gasped, said Dianne Brennan, the orchestra’s vice president of advancement. “And then they looked at me.”
Bringing Ma to Minnesota would be pricey. So Brennan called her contact at Ameriprise Financial. On a Tuesday night in June, Yo-Yo Ma took the stage. Inside the program, a message from Ameriprise: “We are honored to sponsor this exceptional event ... ”
Corporate sponsorships help Minnesota orchestras, theater companies and museums in big and small ways, backing entire seasons and single concerts, performers’ flights and backstage supplies. Delta Air Lines sponsored the Guthrie Theater’s summer musical “Sunday in the Park With George.” Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank is backing artist-designed minigolf at the Walker Art Center. Bremer Bank was behind the recent production of “West Side Story” at Ordway Center.
Which is why this summer’s controversy over Delta and Bank of America pulling their funding from the Public Theater in New York caused angst among Twin Cities arts watchers. These corporate sponsors distanced themselves in June from the theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” amid fierce criticism about the President Trump-like portrayal of the title character.
Shakespeare, of all things! “It’s even more ironic,” because sponsors tend to love Shakespeare, a classic audience-pleaser, said Scott Mayer, founder of the Ivey Awards, whose work has straddled both sides of the arts sponsorship world.
At first, “I thought, oh boy, this is going to make corporations even more hesitant to fund performing arts,” Mayer said. “But the reality is, there are risks with sponsoring any kind of organization.”
At the time, Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj worried that the episode would have a broader, chilling effect on the theater community because sponsors “have been vitally important to the health of the American theater.” In interviews this month, leaders of Minnesota arts organizations said that so far, they’ve seen little change. But the controversy spotlights the growing importance of companies’ marketing dollars to art institutions’ bottom lines.
More than ‘a tin cup’
Companies are devoting more of their philanthropic dollars to causes that match their missions — sometimes giving less to the arts as a result, several development directors said. For example, Pentair, a company focused on products that move, store and treat water, is focusing its donations on water quality issues.
“As companies’ philanthropic portfolios shrink or shift away from the arts to different social service areas, it does make it necessary that arts groups become more accomplished and adept at truly forming partnerships,” said Christopher Stevens, the Walker’s chief of advancement, “and not just holding out a tin cup.”
In the early 2000s, the Walker was cautious: It had “adopted a minimalist stance toward visible sponsorship flag-waving,” a 2002 article said. But the nonprofit underwent a “culture shift” with its major expansion in 2005, Stevens said. After much discussion, the staff decided to be “more aggressive and ambitious about trying to get those particular kinds of corporate dollars.”
“Aggressive” to an arts organization looks a lot different than it does to a sports team, he noted: “We’re a long ways from NASCAR.”
Art centers are “pretty good at policing to make sure there’s not a tipping point where the actual experience of someone sitting in a theater or attending a film screening or strolling through the gallery is impacted negatively,” Stevens said. In fact, he argued, such sponsorships can enhance a visitor’s experience. U.S. Bank is not only sponsoring the artist-designed minigolf, it’s inviting employees to play and offering discounts for cardholders. It’s not only backing the Katharina Fritsch exhibition inside the art center, it’s hosting client events there.
In exchange? Recognition that, increasingly, goes well beyond a discreet logo in a program. With sponsorships, companies want “meaningful engagement” with audiences, said Jill Underwood, associate director of development for the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, “whether that’s having a table in the lobby during a performance or hosting a preshow reception.
“It’s getting more nuanced and layered as far as what they’re looking for.”
For a recent production of “Cinderella,” whose panto style featured current references and “off-the-wall shout-outs,” the theater pursued sponsors who might want to be mentioned in the actual play, Underwood said. Kowalski’s, among others, paid for a shout-out.
Spending on arts sponsorships in North America reached $962 million in 2016, according to IEG, a Chicago-based consulting firm. That’s up 2.4 percent from 2015. Arts groups receive just 4 percent of total sponsorship spending; sports nabs 70 percent.
IEG predicts that in 2017, spending on arts sponsorships will increase 3.3 percent, lagging behind other categories.
“There hasn’t been a lot of new energy and new creativity in arts sponsorship as much as there has been in other categories,” said Jim Andrews, the firm’s senior vice president.
Drawing a line
On a recent Thursday night, people at the Walker Wide Open Party shouted and whispered into a giant bull’s-eye microphone. “Speak with the skyline,” the display suggested. Their voices triggered red lights a mile away, on top of Target’s downtown headquarters.
Target might be the most visible arts backer in Minnesota: Its name adorns a wing at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, an atrium at Orchestra Hall, a lounge at the Guthrie, entire admission-free days at the Walker and the Children’s Museum of Minnesota. In 2015, Target Foundation granted more than $9 million to arts and social services organizations in the Twin Cities, a figure it has “sustained” for the past decade, said Lee Henderson, a spokesman.
“It’s really about being a good neighbor,” he said by phone, “about creating communities where we know our guests, our team members can thrive.”
Mayer once handled community relations and foundational giving for Target and, before that, Marshall Field’s. Today, he’s the one bringing in money: He runs an events consulting business and, until recently, produced the Ivey Awards, which relies entirely on corporate support.
“Corporations are much more concerned about the bottom line,” Mayer said. “They want to see a return on investment — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
With less to give, local corporations are nudging arts groups toward their sponsorship dollars, said Carley Stuber, the Minnesota Opera’s chief development officer. “Honestly, the corporations are deeply committed to having a robust arts scene. ... They know it attracts top talent, so they want to be certain the funding is there.”
Sponsorships can take unexpected forms. “It’s surprising how many 3M products are on stage,” Stuber said, “so if we’re spending $5,000 a show on product, is there an opportunity to have some of that as an in-kind product donation?”
But a strict firewall prevents corporations from meddling in artistic decisions, said Danielle St. Germain-Gordon, the Guthrie’s director of development. Once a season is set, she and her team try to match plays to sponsors. “Shakespeare is always of interest to sponsors,” she noted, as well as “A Christmas Carol” and the summer musical. “Typically, 75,000 people will see our summer musical, so that’s just a smart business decision to have your logo on bus sides, billboards, and newspaper ads because the whole world will be in attendance.”
“We could stage ‘The Music Man’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ on rotation until the end of time because those are so popular and completely sold out and corporations love them,” St. Germain-Gordon said with a laugh, “but we definitely have a firewall.”