Art, Business and PR

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Art has always been subsidized by wealthy patrons. The kings, queens and nobles of Italy and France, Russia and England; and finally the Astors, the Goulds, the Mellons and the Fricks of this country certainly gave some thought to public relations when they commissioned or bought their paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, their Gobelin tapestries, Faberge jewels, their Whistlers and French Impressionists.

The fact that the paths of the PR man and the artist cross so often now, at so many different places, is what is new. Art uses business, and business uses art; and much of this is PR inspired.

There are a number of ways in which art is useful to business. Any company can stage an art exhibit. But the public relations handling of the exhibit can either give the company a favorable image or quite the opposite. The PR man must keep the exhibit free of commercialism and at the same time insure credit for the company. The quality of the art must be satisfactory; local art groups must be invited to participate; and the part of the company must be played down. To emphasize one of the important rides of good PR: the publicist must remember who he is trying to influence. In dealing with the art world it's the "soft sell" that gets results.



Giant corporations such as Zerox, Schlitz Brewing Company, Chase Manhattan, Manufacturers' Hanover Trust, Standard Oil of New Jersey and the Mead Corporation spend large amounts of PR money on cultural projects. The Mead Corporation sponsors an art program called "Art Across America." Designed as a showcase for the work of American artists, both well known and lesser known, this traveling exhibit takes contemporary art to cities across the country.

Since Mead is a corporation that specializes in container manufacture, packaging and papers, the idea of excellence in design and color is associated in the public mind with its products through the art exhibit. Mead proves it knows that art has a place in business by sponsoring this program.

Does an art program pay off for a large company? The answer, according to those companies that have used it, is that it can be if it is carefully considered and begun modestly. Art is a tricky medium to work with. Not everyone likes what he sees, or what the juries have chosen as the work of American artists they feel are worthy of attention. It is safer to spend the corporation's money on advertising time or space in media that will be read or heard by influential people.

Why then do companies concern themselves with art?
  1. First, as we have seen with Mead, art can fit the corporate personality or image, or identity.

  2. At a relatively low cost the company can reach a lot of people, and win credit for being involved in American life in a significant way.

  3. Art reaches a portion of the public not usually reached by advertising editors, writers, artists, students, collectors, curators and business leaders of communities.

  4. The company learns much about the American scene: for instance, those Southern cities, which seem to have a deep interest in cultural things and are not often reached by traveling exhibits, are in many ways the best showcases for company art.

  5. A non-commercial art exhibitor says: "We are a company which doesn't just talk about itself, which proves it has an interest in the public it serves, and not only in the balance sheet."

  6. It has been found that the support of art in one form or another helps to attract intelligent and creative employees to the company.
Mead sponsors a serious and representative exhibit of contemporary American art. The Philip Morris Company, also noted for its interest in art as good PR, is responsible for:
  1. Contributions to the fund of the Whitney Museum of American Art for buying the works of young artists. The arrangement between the cigarette company and the Museum further provides for the loan of paintings from the Museum's permanent collection to Philip Morris.

  2. The commissioning of a brilliant young architect to design their Research and Operations Center in Richmond, and also their headquarters in New York.

  3. Commissioning of sculptures and paintings for their overseas facilities by sometimes controversial artists.

  4. Participation in a program known as "Art in the Embassy" which helps U.S. Embassies around the world to purchase or borrow fine art.

  5. The use of the "Op Art" technique in a poster series long before Op became popular.

  6. The commissioning of a well known artist to do sketches and paintings of the TV stars whose shows were sponsored by the tobacco firm. This collection, called the "Art of Entertainment" was, Philip Morris claims, viewed by more than 1,000,000 people not in museums, but in bank windows, display areas, supermarkets, department stores.

  7. Not content with adding art to the lives of the general public, their own executives, and finally their white collar workers, Philip Morris turned to their factories. Wall space in factories does not always permit the display of art. The tobacco company was resourceful, and suspended paintings from the ceilings. The favorable response of factory workers to this encouraged the company to present all kinds of exhibits in their factories and other facilities, from selected newspaper editorial cartoons to a display of forms of transportation put together by another manufacturer.

  8. The creation of an art exhibit they describe as "unique" for international exposure. This meant producing original graphic works directly on materials from which multiple-printed impressions could be made. The materials used included silver foil, metallic plastic, styrene and vinyl. The exhibit toured 64 cities around the world.

  9. This successful display of original graphics decided the PR oriented management of Philip Morris to sponsor an additional project. This was a traveling exhibit called "Pop and Op" the first major national exhibition of graphics representing these two current trends. The Pop graphics were commissioned, but the examples of Op art were purchased from artists and their representatives.
It is interesting to note that Philip Morris Enterprises also own a company specializing in making sophisticated flexible packaging materials. So interest in the graphic arts comes natural to them. In these days of mergers and conglomerates, it is not surprising when companies seem to deviate from the beaten path in their PR work. Few large companies are single minded. They have diversified interests; and these interests are reflected in their public relations efforts.

There are other reasons why art in one form or another attracts PR counselors. A company may be in a sensitive area, it may be insider attack from one group or another. Dow Chemical with its making of napalm is an example. What is the most effective kind of public relations? To defend the company? No. Because critics won't read the defense; only friends will read it. To attack the company's critics? No. This tactic would only increase their numbers. The best course of action, according to PR experts, is to set up a program that will completely alter the company image. An art program is a good counteraction.

Art has universal appeal. When a company recognizes this, and backs up its recognition with hard cash, even its critics who, after all have a normal response to stimuli, react favorably. A man who thinks cigarettes should be banned may not rush to an art exhibit sponsored by Philip Morris. He may even resent the fact that art is being used as a cover up, but there won't be much he can do about it. The average public, overlooking the intent of the exhibit, will flock to it and enjoy it and wish more corporations were as public spirited.
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