With the Government giving less to art and education,somebody’s got to give more. And that somebody is America’s corporations.footnote1

Such statements were a common feature of the Reagan era, designed to place business before the public consciousness as an enlightened patron of the arts. They are indicative of a wider phenomenon that characterized the decade of the 1980s under successive Reagan and Thatcher governments—the unprecedented intervention of business in contemporary culture. Never before had the corporate world in America and Britain exercised such sway over the range of high culture, in which business involvement had previously been thought of as inappropriate, if not completely alien.

Corporations had, of course, for some time been making contributions to art museums and other cultural organizations. In the 1970s, while continuing in the generally passive role of being solicited for donations, businesses had begun to be active participants in the framing and shaping of the discourse of contemporary culture. What was new in the 1980s was that this active involvement became ubiquitous and comprehensive.

This essay sets out to plot a small but important part of this trajectory whose impetus lay in the free-market policies and ethos of the Reagan and Thatcher decade: the great influx of corporate capital into visual art institutions. Looking specifically at the contemporary art world, I will examine the ways in which businesses successfully transformed art museums and galleries into their own public-relations vehicles, by taking over the function, and by exploiting the social status, that cultural institutions have in our society. Given the scope of this essay, it is not possible to discuss the public policy implications of this phenomenon.footnote2 Yet it is worth recalling that the relation between public policy and business sponsorship in Britain is so close that Colin Tweedy, director of the Association of Business Sponsorship for the Arts (absa), went as far as to suggest that sponsorship was one of the cornerstones of Thatcherism.footnote3

During the 1980s corporate art collections were being set up with increasing frequency on both sides of the Atlantic. Using their economic power, modern corporations, armed with their own curators and art departments, vigorously emulated the former prerogatives of public art museums and galleries by organizing and touring their own collections at home and abroad, and by incorporating an art gallery or hosting a branch of a public museum within their premises. More importantly, corporations established contemporary art awards, giving them considerable cultural visibility, along with the appearance of being the arbiters of society’s taste. Business influence is thus well advanced in every phase of contemporary art—in its production, dissemination and reception.

Compared with the United States, there was a great deal less corporate engagement in art museums in Britain, at least before the Conservatives came to power in 1979. Then the government at both local and national levels was still directly and adequately funding art galleries. It was possible in 1980 to speak of visual arts sponsorship in Britain as a ‘new game’, with its territory yet to be ‘firmly demarcated’.footnote4 Yet throughout the 1980s the Conservative government was highly successful in emulating American-style enterprise culture, transforming the cultural scene in Britain. By the end of the 1980s, whether in Britain or America, art museums had become just another public-relations outpost for corporations, and we live with the consequences to this day. Across the Atlantic, Lexus sedans were regularly displayed outside museums and concert halls, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Lincoln Center in New York, while in Britain both the Royal Academy and Royal Festival Hall converted their courtyards into car showrooms for corporate sponsors. The transformation of art museums in the 1980s from purveyors of a particular élite culture to fun palaces for an increasing number of middle-class arts consumers has thus to be seen within the dual perspective of government policies and business initiatives.

But why are companies or corporate executives attracted to arts sponsorship in the first place? Notwithstanding the considerable endeavours to foster private support for the arts under the Reagan and Thatcher regimes, corporations were doing much more than simply responding to government pressure. It was rather a question of the unashamedly probusiness ambience created by both governments, significantly helping companies in their efforts to push their agendas. At an ideological level, business has always perceived any government regulation as a potential threat to the free market system. Closely following the setting up of the National Endowment for the Arts (nea) by the us federal government in 1965, the business community responded in 1967 by establishing an arts support system of its own, the Business Committee for the Arts (bca). Like other business associations such as the Business Roundtable in America, the bca assumed, and has maintained, an undisputed role as the principal spokesman for business view on arts issues. They defend and champion their arts intervention through regular publications of the speeches of top corporate executives. Here is part of one of them by Winton Blount, the chief executive officer (ceo) of Blount Inc. and a former chairman of the bca, at its annual meeting in 1984: