Britain’s Independent has a short feature on the growing influence of corporate arts sponsorships in the wake of recent cutbacks from the government. While the article doesn’t offer much in the way of data or even examples demonstrating the purported trend, writer Emily Jupp does manage to get some beautifully candid on-the-record quotes from corporate representatives about the real reasons they’re supporting the arts:

“It’s not pure altruism,” says David Nicholas, a media director at BP. “Sponsorship can bring benefits to our reputation.” Even the negative publicity doesn’t seem to bother him.”Everyone has a right to protest – at least it gets people talking about BP!” But he denies that the company is trying to maintain an acceptable face. “If you want to try to put an artsy face on a roughneck in overalls, I leave that to you.”

Marco Compagnoni, a senior partner at the City law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, says objecting to big business sponsorship is “absolutely bonkers” but he rejects BP’s assertion that it’s for employee benefits. “It’s not done for the perks. Law firms aren’t munificent, activities like that are for marketing and keeping close to clients to help your business. We are doing an evening at the Leonardo and one at the Hockney because it’s a good atmosphere to talk to clients. It’s not to be nice.”

One of the most common conservative objections to government support for the arts, one that is sometimes voiced by liberals as well, is the potential for giving up undue influence and control (particularly over content). That’s never made much sense to me, because the fact is that so long as art requires significant subsidy from non-artists in order to happen, whoever’s providing that subsidy has the power to meddle unhelpfully in the artist’s affairs. So it’s really just a question of who you trust most – and least – to keep a safe distance. Is it big corporations or the government? Depends on whose government you’re talking about, I suppose. I’ll take a sponsorship from BP over one from Hu Jintao any day. The system we use in the United States – with its decentralized marketplace of tax-advantaged private foundations and individual donors making up the vast majority of subsidy – is extremely labor-intensive to maintain, but it may be the best we can do for freedom of expression.