Art At Any Cost

by Neil Nisbet

This editorial began life as a simple news story about why Whiteoak Dance Project were accepting sponsorship from the world biggest tobacco company, Phillip Morris Industries and what they [the company] had to say about it. Since we began asking questions however a great deal has emerged about the scale of big tobacco’s involvement in the performing arts and dance in particular.

Whiteoak has proved to be a very small fish in a very big pond. Some of the worlds most famous arts organisations such as New York City Ballet are in receipt or have received substantial amounts of money from tobacco companies. This raises a very obvious question for Article19 and many that we have spoken to, should the arts and dance in particular, take money from tobacco companies? Is it art at any cost?

The overwhelming reaction from those that we have spoken to has been that taking money from tobacco is akin to taking money from the devil himself. In a poll of dance organisations from around the UK only 12% stated that they would accept sponsorship money from a tobacco company without any reservations with some citing that it was “a personal choice to smoke not the choice of the manufacturer [of the product]”.

With that small exception it is very encouraging to hear since UK dance organisations play host to tens of thousands of children and young people every year in classes and workshops. When the same organisations were asked if they would take part in an event sponsored by a tobacco company the response was slightly different. 25% of the respondents said they would take part in the event with 50% stating that they would have to make the decision as to whether they would participate or not at the time the opportunity arose. A quarter of those questioned stated that they would refuse point blank to take part in the event.

Our quick survey would suggest that this is more of a problem in the United States and other countries rather than the UK. A quick scout around the internet finds a number of American, dance related and arts related events and companies receiving money from big tobacco. Although Glyndbourne Opera recently accepted £200,000 in sponsorship from British American Tobacco (BAT) for a production of Carmen it would seem to be an isolated case. Having said that the decision of that company to accept the money caused a storm of protest from politicians, anti smoking groups and health care professionals.

The relatively small world of contemporary dance would appear to be immune from such controversy. Some of the dance managers we spoke to stated that dance would simply not attract this type of corporate sponsorship in any case because the art form was not high profile enough and attracted only a small audience.

These comments would suggest that it is very easy for contemporary dance organisations in general too say that they would not accept sponsorship from a tobacco company because they are unlikely to receive such an offer. However, just how easy would it be for cash strapped dance bodies to say no to large sums of money offered by corporations who, after all, are doing nothing illegal?

For some organisation in the United States and elsewhere the question seems to have been answered. The answer being “we will take the money”. Whiteoak Dance Project, the company that began this investigation which is led by one of the worlds most famous dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov, were anxious to distance themselves from receiving financial support from Philip Morris Industries.

In fact 24 hours after we spoke to Christine Sterner the MD of the company, Philip Morris’s logo was removed from the front page of the company’s website. Ms Sterner stated that “we don’t get sponsored in any big way by Philip Morris”. She also stated that the sponsorship was given over two years ago and they are not funded regularly by the charitable foundation side of Philip Morris Industries. However further to her initial comment Ms Sterner did state that;

“The foundation part of the corporation is really pretty separate from what they manufacture and I think if one delved into any corporate situation they would be saying politically or perhaps ethically we might not be completely in agreement with [them]. Philip Morris is an obvious example of this. I think that …. that one could say the foundation is a very separate thing. What they do, of course you know, is take some of their profits and put it in a whole different division of the company and is run by people that analyse, suggest and recommend companies that should get money for charitable purposes whether that’s a performing arts company or something else. Do I think that we are condoning smoking or condoning their products? I don’t. I simply think that we are trying to exist in the world as an arts organisation like others are.”

(Article19 did try and speak to New York City Ballet about their relationship with Philip Morris but our phone call was not immediately returned.)

This is a common refrain from companies accepting tobacco money. The feeling being that if the money itself comes from a separate foundation or entity then the origins of that money are generally irrelevant.

There is also a feeling that since the tobacco industry in itself causes such a devastating amount of death and illness that you may as well do something useful with the charitable money created from the vast profits that tobacco companies make. Another factor for justifying the acceptance of this type of sponsorship was that most companies and big corporations, if you look into their backgrounds and operations in detail, fail to come up smelling of roses.

This is certainly true but we are pretty sure that no other corporate group in the world could stand up proudly and say that “we kill over 4 million of our customers every year and make millions more seriously ill for the rest of their lives.” You will not see that comment on any of the tobacco companies websites or corporate documents even though it clearly states on the packaging that their product has a better than average chance of killing you.

So why do tobacco companies want to sponsor the arts or anything else for that matter? The simple fact is they are looking for legitimacy and acceptance by the public at large. One commentator recently described big tobaccos corporate sponsorship programmes as “company PR by stealth”, piggybacking a tainted brand name on the back of the acceptable public face of the performing arts.

It is apparent that certain performing arts companies are only too willing to accept the money and be used by the tobacco industry in this way. If there is one thing that Philip Morris and BAT have that arts companies don’t it is money and lots of it. In a recent newspaper article a spokesman for BAT stated that their sponsorship of the Glyndbourne Opera was not about “brand sponsorship” but at the same time he did manage to mention two of the companies cigarette brands in the statement that was published in the article. Philip Morris in particular makes it very easy to apply for funding from their culture sponsorship initiative.

You simply fill in a form online and wait for a response. No complicated discussions or detailed negotiations with specialist advisors and fund raisers to secure money it’s all handled by email just like you were buying a book from Amazon.

There is a real worry that with funding for the arts in such short supply many organisations may be tempted to take tobacco’s money should it be offered or asked for. Particularly if the money is pivotal to a project living or dying by the shortage of money which they invariably are.

Next year tobacco sponsorship and advertising will be illegal in the UK so this argument will become a moot point for the British arts scene at least. However no such restrictions are planned in the rest of the world so it is not beyond the realms of possibility that British dance companies may be performing at events sponsored by tobacco companies.

The big question is will they still attend? If we look at the international scene the implications are more worrying. If prestige organisations such as New York City Ballet are prepared to take money from such an obviously dubious origin then smaller, less well established companies will use them as excuse to take money as well. The feeling being that if NYCB can do it and it’s ok, then why not for us?

What also became apparent is that even though many dance organisations in the UK said they would never accept tobacco money in theory, they thought the issue was “unclear” or “difficult” and was certainly not “black or white”. Well should any of our readers feel that there is any ambiguity let us reassure you that there is no ambiguity in this issue at all. Every penny that comes from the tobacco industry or companies affiliated with them is tainted with the millions of deaths their products cause every single year.

There is no ambiguity in the severe and traumatic diseases that are caused as a direct result of using tobacco products and the untold suffering and pain caused to the relatives of those that suffer from these illnesses. There is no ambiguity in the billions of pounds spent by the National Health Service and other health services around the world treating the effects of smoking.

There is no ambiguity in the cynical and nauseating methods used by tobacco companies to try and obtain credibility in the eyes of the public. Whatever spin any arts organisation uses to justify accepting money from this most indefensible of industries the theatre goers and arts followers should vote with their feet. Art is important in our lives and a lot of people believe that art is fundamental to life in defining who we are as people. That stands for little if the artists themselves are selling out to the highest bidder.

Art at any cost? What do you think