Leaving the office late at night, Alexandre Ricard noticed the guard in the atrium standing transfixed in front of a large painting, bought from the artist by Mr Ricard’s grandfather.
It was the day the canvas had been installed in the newly opened Paris headquarters of Pernod Ricard, the spirit maker run by Mr Ricard as chairman and chief executive.
Seeing the man apparently welling up with emotion, Mr Ricard engaged him in conversation. His explanation was revealing: “I can’t believe one day I’d be paid as a security guard and have in front of me, for my own pleasure, a Salvador Dalí.”
Mr Ricard offers the vignette not only to illustrate his company’s long association with art — Paul Ricard, his grandfather and one of the founders of the business, was a friend of Dalí and bought the painting, “La Pêche aux thons”, in 1967 — but also as an example of art’s power to inspire workers in a corporate setting.
In the teeth of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Ricard has installed the family’s art foundation on the first floor of the new HQ in Saint-Lazare, with a 120-seat lecture theatre, exhibition spaces and a café where drinks marketers can mingle with the young French artists supported by the foundation.
“It’s designed to create improbable encounters that generate ideas and innovation,” Mr Ricard says. “This is what I think is interesting — this exchange between people from the business world and artists.”
This bold attempt at intellectual cross-fertilisation — conceived before the pandemic — is being launched as artists and cultural organisations have had to rethink the terms of their partnerships with business supporters following the economic and social devastation of Covid-19.
Theatres and museums have been forced to close their doors, businesses have gone under and creative professionals have struggled financially. Companies that back the arts have had to choose whether to maintain this funding as the restrictions have dragged on. Many arts directors say their business supporters have stuck with them through the worst of the crisis, even as the traditional benefits of opening nights and corporate networking events have been severely curtailed.
Bank of America is one of the biggest sponsors of arts organisations globally, spending $25m-$35m a year on an international programme that supports museums, theatres and other art forms.
Rena De Sisto, global arts and culture executive for BofA, says it has kept to all of its funding commitments, but has shifted money in some cases to help organisations create digital offerings.
The bank’s latest initiative is “Masterpiece Moments”, a series of five-minute videos that will be posted on YouTube over the course of this year, in which museum and gallery directors focus on a single piece in their collection.
Acknowledging that such projects help the bank’s branding and profile — and give a sense of pride to its employees — Ms De Sisto insists that culture itself is also a driver. “In this time of trial we need art institutions and whatever they can do for society, even digitally. This is not a time to pull back.”
Last year BofA sponsored a big Andy Warhol retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, which opened for its seven-month run on March 12 before closing for lockdown just five days later. Charlotte Reeves, Tate’s head of corporate partnerships, says that after the space fell silent, the gallery organised a live-streamed event for BofA, with experts walking viewers through the show.
Ms Reeves points out that for over a decade Tate’s partnerships have not been based solely on the physical exhibition space. “We deliver programmes of workshops to our partners’ offices, wherever they’re based around the world,” she says.
Creating bespoke online events for corporate partners has, at least, become easier in one respect: creative professionals who would normally be shuttling around the world are only too glad to use their confinement to meet an interested and supportive audience.
“What we’ve offered corporate supporters is something they couldn’t have before — individual conversations with artists,” says Nicholas Kenyon, managing director of the Barbican Centre in London. In one event, he hosted an online discussion accessible to Barbican patrons where the conductor Gustavo Dudamel took questions. “There’s a man who’s usually rushed off his feet, with every minute of the day scheduled,” Sir Nicholas says.
Some corporate supporters have accelerated their arts philanthropy. At London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre, a long-established dance venue, more than 80 per cent of income comes from ticket sales and related spending by audiences, but during lockdowns no performances have been permitted.
Alistair Spalding, the venue’s artistic director and chief executive, says the fashion brand Bottega Veneta had been interested in working with it ahead of the pandemic, but its planning went up a gear when the crisis took hold. Sadler’s Wells staged a socially distanced fashion show in October for the fashion house, followed by a global gala sponsored by Bottega. The digital version of this annual autumn fundraiser brought in almost as much as previous live events with 250 guests, yet at half the cost.
“Bottega Veneta felt they needed to help the cultural sector because itwas in such a difficult position,” Mr Spalding says.
Will such relationships snap back to “normal” when the crisis eventually recedes? That will partly depend on the extent to which cultural activities pick up as before. Sir Nicholas says: “You can bet your life that behind the closed doors of arts institutions there is a great deal of scenario planning going on.”
He thinks the trend away from “shovelling money into the arts” and towards relationships where commerce and culture both gain will be strengthened. “That old model is not what corporates or private supporters want going forward,” he says. “They want a relationship, and a recalibration on a more human scale.” That includes a more permanent role for digital experiences.
Ms De Sisto says museums and galleries are likely to reconsider the number of blockbuster exhibitions they hold and to draw more heavily on their own collections. These changes will have an impact on income — and on the importance of corporate help.
“In all cases they’re expecting reduced revenues at the door,” shesays. “Depending on what governments do, they’re trying to get more creative. But I do think they’ll be depending more on donors.”
For Mr Ricard, who has maintained the company’s 40-year sponsorship of the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Paris modern art gallery, even as exhibitions have been shelved, it is a “moral commitment” — and one that will not be forgotten by its beneficiaries. “If the artists remember that during a crisis you got cold feet, I don’t think you’ll be back in favour when things go back to normal.”