Arts: When the corporate customer cracks the whip: David Lister believes that business sponsors are demanding too much of a hard sell from arts companies (CORRECTED)

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THE AIR at the top of the BT tower is thin. And at a lunch for some key people in the arts, Michael Bett, the vice chairman of BT, seemed to become light-headed.

Looking out of the 360-degree window, he fixed his gaze on London's Barbican and fired a salvo at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which BT used to sponsor. They were, he said, 'arrogant'. 'They ex- pected that because it was the RSC, the sponsorship was a national duty which BT was performing. Unfortunately, there is more to it than that. We did not reckon we were getting enough of a return.'

Interesting phraseology, that. Business sponsors of the arts used to avoid talking about 'getting enough of a return', and dwelt instead on the warm glow they experienced in helping the arts and funding education and community work.

But times are changing. There is a clear indication of how much from the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts' latest bulletin.

It says: 'Sports sponsorship is often about getting a prominent logo on the football shirt or racing car. Arts sponsorship rarely goes to these lengths. And yet, why should an orchestra not wear, for example, fashion clothing?'

Before Sir Georg Solti is forced into an Armani suit and the RSC has its phones cut off, it is worth pausing to consider just where the business / arts relationship is going, and who might be the losers as the recession and anxious shareholders cause businesses to get tougher.

Business sponsorship has been a vital form of financial support for the arts for some years. Last year it contributed pounds 65m, with BT's pounds 1.8m making it the biggest sponsor. Business has always, quite fairly, wanted to get some benefit out of a sponsorship, but in the past companies settled for programme publicity and corporate entertaining.

Now, though, it is a picture of the product that you are more likely to see in the foyer rather than the chairman, spouse and assorted contacts. Audiences in Stratford-upon- Avon will have their gaze deflected from the restored art deco foyer in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre by hoardings for Flora margarine and Persil washing powder. The sponsors of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet are leaving little to chance.

And other manufacturers are leaving even less to chance, replacing product promotion with Hollywood-style product placement in British theatres.

In Opera Factory's production of Don Giovanni, sponsored by the ice cream manufacturer Haagen-Dazs, the banquet scene ended with Leporello being pushed head-first into a tub of ice-cream. The Women's Playhouse Trust's production of Blood Wedding had the entire cast dressed in Nicole Farhi's collection. A chocolate company that sponsored pantomimes at Christmas insisted that the name of the chocolate be in the script.

This is trading too far on arts companies' willingness to help out their sponsors. And they do normally show willing. Northern Ballet is happy to provide ballerinas to pose down manholes for BT. The RSC has allowed the name of its principal sponsor, Royal Insurance, to be bigger than the name Shakespeare on its logo.

Mr Bett, incidentally, did later issue an apology for his accusation of arrogance. But I believe that, far from being arrogant, the RSC has been too amenable. The Flora and Persil hoardings are an eyesore in a foyer whose wall posters celebrate some of the greatest theatrical performances of the century. Theatre companies have bent over backwards for sponsors, as the growth in private corporate entertainment suites shows. Even the National Theatre has one, disregarding the intention of the building's architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, that the social interaction in the NT bar should be part of the evening's experience.

Arts companies are not actually being arrogant enough. And businesses are misjudging theatre audiences. Unilever, producer of Persil and Flora, clearly wanted to be associated with the RSC because the RSC is a class act, and it wants classy customers. But classy customers don't want to see Flora and Persil when they go to see Hamlet. In going for the hard sell, using the foyer and the stage as a glorified shop window, both business and the theatre may discover how easy it is to lose an audience.

David Lister is Arts Correspondent of the 'Independent'


Last week we gave the impression that Nicole Farhi had been involved in product placement for a production of Lorca's Blood Wedding. This was incorrect.