Economists and business leaders talk about the ‘symbiotic relationship’ between art and business: art gains funds and businesses gains prestige, an improved corporate image and whatnot. All that matters, economically, is that the seller has the right to sell, the purchaser wants the goods at the given price and has the funds to pay for them: if these conditions are met, and all other things being equal, then the transaction takes place. It is irrelevant that a third person disagrees with the price, or that a fourth disputes the reason for the purchase. All that matters is that one value – the perceived value of the product to the purchaser – is exchanged for another value – the price set, or negotiated, by the seller. Just as with the example of the artist selling an artwork to a collector, the transaction seems normal, fair and uncontroversial. How could this win-win scenario be controversial? Well, if we examine the transaction not only in terms of what each party takes away from it, but what each brings, then, like all transactions, it can also be described as a ‘lose-lose’, or at least a mutual payment: in principle, art pays what the corporation gains, while the corporation pays what art receives. This is normal: money is exchanged for goods: goods are exchanged for money. The seller gains money but loses goods; the purchaser gains goods but loses money. If the exchange is ‘fair’, that is to say, if the value of the goods is equal to the value of the money, then both parties are assumed to be happy with the transaction. In economics all transactions are assumed to be voluntary, so why wouldn’t both parties be happy?
Let’s look at this transaction between art and business a little more closely, by examining what each, as buyer and seller, gain and lose from the transaction. From the point of view of the corporation, the purchaser, money is exchanged for a good. This is quite normal. Now let’s turn our attention to the seller. Normally, in economic theory, the seller in an economic transaction is regarded as offloading something that they do not need (eg a farmer grows more wheat than she can use) and this is exchanged for money, with which she can buy something that she lacks (eg an ipad). However, this cosy picture is inaccurate in the case of art’s transactions with corporate sponsors. In the example of a corporate sponsor part-funding a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, for instance, we cannot assume that the museum is selling something that it doesn’t want anymore. What’s more, If we assume that the corporation purchases prestige from the museum, we cannot assume that the museum needs to offload its prestige, as if it has stores of ‘surplus’ prestige that it can take to market. No, if the museum sells prestige to the corporate sponsor, then it hopes to retain its prestige – or as much of it as it possibly can – after the transaction has taken place. And would the corporation be interested in sponsoring an arts organization or event if the very act of sponsoring it eliminated the prestige that they hope to purchase? Clearly not. So, it seems as if the transaction is not straightforward after all. Maybe the museum can only sell the top slice of its prestige, like interest on a mortgage, to protect its value as an attractor of sponsorship? Or maybe the museum’s prestige derives from the works it houses and the exhibitions it hosts, so that it is more like a bureau de change of prestige? The parlour game of devising analogies for the museum’s economic activities can be suggestive but I want more clarity. Let me say, therefore, that strictly speaking, the museum does not in fact sell what the corporate sponsor buys. What the museum has to sell, and has a limited supply of, is best understood as the rights to sponsor various events, buildings, refurbishments, rehangs and so on. Unlike the farmer who sells wheat to somebody who wants wheat, the museum director does not sell the prestige that the corporate sponsor buys; the museum sells the right for a company to be associated with the museum’s activities. The sponsor, in effect, buys something that is not for sale.
As a ‘win-win’ scenario, the sponsor receives proxy prestige and the museum receives funds. By inverting the ‘win-win’ scenario we are able to notice something that is missed by the simple economic analysis of exchange: the sponsor does not buy what the museum sells. This leaves us with a curious result. As a ‘lose-lose’ scenario, the sponsor pays money and the museum pays nothing and loses nothing, parting with nothing except the ‘rights to sponsor’, which they can sell at no cost to themselves (other than the ‘cost’ of not being able to sell the exclusive ‘rights to sponsor’ to another client). The museum does not get off scot free, however. The ‘association’, which the sale of the ‘rights to sponsor’ cements, is potentially a dangerous liaison. So, even while the transaction does not include the sale of the museum’s prestige, we can say that the museum’s prestige is threatened by this transaction, nonetheless. “As corporate sponsors and private sponsors seemingly take control of decision making processes regarding such things as exhibitions, the need or demand for a stronger enforcement of an explicit code of ethics within museums has been voiced from people within the arts industry and other sources. The increasing pressure for art museums to reach out to corporate sponsors for financial support has created the need to meet the market oriented goals of corporations and sponsors, often compromising the integrity and goals of the art museums as exhibitions tend to increasingly serve more the purpose of public relations rather than art and education for the public per se.”[i] But this is only one of the dangers. ‘Art Not Oil’ is an organization that both protests against the involvement of oil companies such as BP and Shell in the arts, and promotes the role that art can play in counteracting the damage that these companies do to the planet. It might be worth considering the possibility of countertransference taking place in the association between museum and sponsor, so that while the sponsor acquires the prestige of the museum, the arts institution in turn is coloured by the prestige or notoriety of the client.
Several preliminary observations can be made. First, the controversies that beset the economic transactions of art are not registered by considering these transactions merely as economic relations. Second, the controversies are the result of the collision of different values attributed to art. Third, the repression of the controversies within standard economics is made possible by the absence – or absenting – of what people within the arts regard as the ‘value of art’ from the analysis. Fourth, the controversies about art’s funding demonstrate that economic analysis cannot be isolated from cultural and political analysis. As indicators of the difficulties facing an economic analysis of art, these four observations suggest two principles for proceeding: the analysis must not be restricted to mainstream economics but needs to engage in ‘political economy’ in a much wider sense, encompassing social, political and cultural analysis; and, the analysis of art’s economy must not exclude questions about art’s value that are external to standard economics.
[i] Stefanie Little, ‘The Business of Museum Ethics and Sponsorship Relations’, http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/bizart/2006/08/the_business_of_museum_ethics.html