Cultural Comment: Sponsorship of the arts may not pay - but there are perks

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We ought not to be surprised that NatWest Bank is considering withdrawing as the sponsor of the art prize that bears its name. The bank has made a determined attempt to identify itself with modern art in recent times, even going so far as to turn one of its grand old branch buildings, at Lothbury in the City of London, into an art gallery. But the whole point of commercial sponsorships is that they are transactions (cash for image-enhancement), and naturally these need to be regularly reviewed.

The trouble with these transactions, however, is their tendency to make both parties unhappy and aggrieved. Artists have sometimes been swift to complain at the merest hint of big-business interference in their work, and have treated even generous donations with disdain; corporations, on the other hand, have sometimes seen the beneficiaries of their patronage as greedy ingrates reluctant even to acknowledge their backers, let alone thank them.

This has hardly been true in NatWest's case: the recipients of the award (worth pounds 26,000) have usually been thoroughly pleased. But these corporate- financed entrances into the arts are arranged marriages between people from different worlds, and it is inevitable that from time to time they should end up in messy and acrimonious divorces. Last year NCR pulled out of their sponsorship of non-fiction, following on from the similar withdrawal of Volvo and Waterstone's. If NatWest should turn out to have grown impatient with modern painters, well, whose fault is that?

The fraught question that plagues all sponsors is this: could anyone who has recently queued their way round an art gallery, sweated up in an opera house, hummed through a concert or dozed off in a West End play actually name the company that put up the money? One thing is for sure: there almost certainly was one. Commercial sponsorship of the arts has boomed in recent years: in 1997 it jumped by 20 per cent and now stands at only a shade under under pounds 100m per year.

Yet not many sponsorship arrangements succeed in breaking through into that public relations dreamworld where commercial enterprise becomes effortlessly associated with fine art. British Telecom (pounds 1.5m overall), Allied Domecq (pounds 1.1m for the Royal Shakespeare Company), Ernst and Young (pounds 600,000 on Picasso and Cezanne at the Tate), Rover (pounds 500,000 for the National Symphony Orchestra) - these are the patrons of today, the Borgias of the New-Brit renaissance. Yet how many people could name them?

Prizes are an especially popular investment: running your finger down the list of Britain's major arts awards is a bit like reading the Footsie Index. There's the Booker, the Whitbread, the Citibank (pounds 10,000 for photographers), the Lloyds Bank (pounds 25,000 for playwrights), the Technics Mercury Music Prize, the Orange, the Perrier ... a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the Turner Prize must be backed by some multinational woodworking combine.

Naturally, this is not art for art's sake. Corporations are greedy for publicity, but they also want perks - front row seats for business entertaining, for starters. Of the 400,000 people who went to Cezanne at the Tate two years ago, 9,000 of them were employees of the sponsor. And while it would be going it a bit to call this an especially sinister development, it does at least gesture us towards an uneasy sense that access to the good life - in the form of the best seats at the best cultural events - starts to become dependent on being part of a corporate magic circle.

It used to be easy to satirise the old nomenklatura in the Soviet Union, the privileged elite of paid-up party members who enjoyed all the available pleasures. In the free-market west it is not party membership that counts so much, increasingly, as an association with a major corporation. Join a top firm and you get, apart from a consoling package of options and bonuses, tickets to the opera, membership of sports clubs, first nights at theatres, debentures at Wimbledon and passes for plush airport lounges - not to mention private health plans, shrewd pension arrangements, cars, fitness trainers and so on. The last two decades have seen the emergence of a privatised, competitive elite almost as exclusive in its intentions as anything the most fossilised bureaucracy could contrive.

It will be a pity if NatWest's seven-year-old attempt to encourage young artists were to founder. But it would be sad if their departure were accompanied merely by hoots of derision. It is not as if there is any great shortage of prizes. Writers and artists can tilt their lances at trophies that are not even dreamed of by lawyers and bankers, let alone nurses and miners. They can paint and compose and write while roughing out, in their mind's margin, a graceful and distinguished acceptance speech, just in case. It is inevitable, after all, that arguments over the arts will rage as long as the arts make less money than they cost - or, to put it another way, earn less than they should.