In the Limelight 

Alison Cowie reflects on the growing importance of corporate support for the arts

Arts and culture has the power to engage, influence and inspire people of all ages and the North East boasts a diverse infrastructure of world-class and niche cultural venues, organisations and festivals which do just that.

According to the North East Culture Partnership, the region’s creative and cultural industries are worth £755 million in GVA to the North East economy and more than 20,000 people are employed in 6000 organisations, with a further 3375 employed in cultural and heritage institutions.

Traditionally, these cultural institutions have relied heavily on public funding but austerity and ongoing Government cuts have decimated this source of investment.

As a result, most, if not all, cultural venues in the North East – alongside those across the UK – have been forced to become more commercially minded to help fill the funding void.

For example, the Theatre Royal – one of Newcastle’s most iconic buildings – has worked hard to become more commercial, often calling on the skills of its board members.

Adam Fenwick, group managing director of Fenwick, has sat on the Theatre Royal board as its deputy chair for more than ten years and is well placed to comment on changes as public funding has fallen.

“The theatre is a charity but it has had to operate on more commercial grounds. It now has to stand on its own merits as the loss of public funding has removed the safety net,” he says.

“It has created the sorts of issues that are similar to those faced in the commercial marketplace and I feel I have been able to work with the executive team and assist in a range of areas – from capital projects to HR guidance.”

He continues: “Arts venues are multifaceted institutions and everyone, across the sector, has had to up their game. Boards now operate in a similar way to how they do for PLCs in providing support and guidance. As such, the theatre has been careful to select members with different, yet complementary, skill sets.”

Adam goes on to say that being part of the theatre’s board has given a him great satisfaction and the ability to give something back to the local community. He also insists the experience has been a “two-way street”.

He says: “I’ve definitely learnt things along the way and I think one of the reasons companies encourage their executives to take up a non-executive role is because, while there is a lot of cross over, there’s also a lot of benchmarking and knowledge to be gained from working in another industry.”

Competition for corporate support in the arts remains high and organisations have had to become increasingly inventive and flexible to appeal not only to large, well-established corporations with sizeable sponsoring budgets but also to smaller businesses, too.

Sally Coop is development director at Artichoke, the London-based creative company that puts on Durham Lumiere, the UK’s largest light festival, which will return to the city November 16-19, 2017. She has worked on all five Durham Lumieres, which began in 2009, and has witnessed visitors numbers grow from 75,000 to 200,000.

Although the festival receives support from Durham Council, its growing popularity and increased demand for more specular light installations has meant the festival’s budget has grown from £650,000 to £2 million – putting pressure on Sarah and her team to find corporate support.

The festival now offers hundreds of different ways for businesses of all sizes to contribute.

“We have an overall sponsor for the festival as well as sponsors for each installation, a sponsor for our gala event, as well as sponsors for our volunteers, a travel sponsor, a hotel sponsor – the list is endless,” she says.

“We also get a lot of support in kind. Ramside Hall gives us hotel rooms and the Radisson Blu provides the venue, food and drink for our Gala event.

“We also get all our jackets and gloves donated by Workwear Express, Virgin Trains gives us train tickets and Pizza Express gives us discounted pizzas.”

Sarah reveals that this year, the festival has also received a donation from the Dutch Embassy, as one of the light installations is being provided by an artist from the Netherlands.

However, the bulk of the support, Sarah says, comes from Durham-based businesses, trusts and foundations that “see the benefit that the festival brings to the county”.

With ongoing austerity and political instability (there’s the forthcoming general election and Brexit to contend with) the return of healthy public funding for the arts seems a long way off, and may never return. Our region’s cultural organisations must therefore continue their work to compete for the public funding that is available, to supplement this with corporate support and to deliver more commercial-focused strategies. Should they fail, the North East risks losing its power to attract world-class artists, performers and events and with it some of the colour and vibrancy that have helped to make the region an inspiring place to live and work.

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