Why business should pay for the arts

Colin Tweedy tells Helen Hague that elitism has had its day
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The Independent Online
Tomorrow evening at Shakespeare's Globe in London, corporate executives and arts luminaries will be sipping champagne and nibbling canapes while they wait to see which businesses have picked up awards for sponsoring the arts. It will be a glitzy thrash, with Dame Diana Rigg presenting the trophies and Stephen Fry and Sheena McDonald introducing the winners. Steel bands and the Ballet Rambert are among the acts billed to help the party - thrown by the Financial Times and the Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts (Absa) - to celebrate the crucial link between those who sign the cheques and those who bring the arts to the public.

With business sponsorship up 19 per cent last year, to pounds 82.8m, things look buoyant. But Absa, which has staged the awards for the past 18 years, is far from blase about the future of sponsorship.

As public subsidy is cut back, sponsorship funding is no longer just the icing on the cake. Virginia Bottomley has sliced 10 per cent off the budget that gives arts organisations matching money if they can find business sponsors to stump up cash. And a further 10 per cent cut has been heralded for next year.

But Colin Tweedy, director-general of Absa, is keen to counter a deeper malaise: business leaders are not as interested in junketing at Glyndebourne as were their predecessors. More worrying still, they "tend to glaze over" when he tries to explain that a canny sponsorship can boost the corporate profile.

Tweedy believes that cultural consumption is under threat among decision- makers and highly pressured, time-strapped high earners. "People are saying: 'I've got to make my pile while I'm young because I might be made redundant at 40 or 50.' If people increasingly consume culture through CDs, videos and the Internet, they will lose the taste for live performance and exhibitions." Audiences are dropping in America and in London, he says.

Tweedy has started a review of how Absa - which has 300 business members - functions. He sees a new role emerging as an arts advocacy agency. "We can't just promote business sponsorship. We have to promote the value of the arts to society at the same time."

Absa is working on projects that are aimed, says Tweedy, at "moving the arts out of the crush bar" - through getting artists, dancers and performers to visit the workplace. It plans arts-at-work pilots in Belfast, Birmingham and London. According to Tweedy, "The very phrase 'the arts' is perceived as elitist. More and more businesses say to me I don't want to be seen to be with elitist art. The new direction we hope to take is about trying to show people that the arts are about the creativity of our country, from the design of a poster or a book cover to live performances and the architecture around us.

"We are trying to give people a vocabulary to talk about the arts, to enable them to discover what the arts have to offer. Most people are comfortable talking about football but not about theatre."

Tweedy is asking leading businesses to donate pounds 20,000 each for three years to help reposition Absa in its drive to open up access to more citizens. "Sponsorship is still buoyant but we've got to be ahead of the game. We've got to promote models and mechanisms to excite people about the arts. We've got to get people out of the work environment, or the gym, or off the sofa, and into the performance and the exhibition space. We've got to show people that the arts are more than an opera house, though the opera house is still important. This means taking opera to schools and getting teenagers to recognise the value of contemporary dance and exhibitions. It's that whole widening of culture which is something that the French have always understood as helping to mark what makes a nation."

As he readies himself for tomorrow's ceremony, Colin Tweedy has more on his plate than a canape or two to be washed down with champagne. He has been seized by a new zeal to widen audiences to the arts. "I believe the arts actually make people better. And they certainly don't encourage them to riot in Trafalgar Square."

Quoting Jo Brand, the comedian, he adds, "Without the arts, we are merely monkeys with car keys."