Belfast Telegraph

Painting a brighter future for the arts

Businesses have long been involved with theatres and artists but now both parties are reaping the rewards of what is a mutually-beneficial partnership

By Margaret Canning

Pressure on government funding for the arts in Northern Ireland are making it clear that artists - from those who run theatres to those who ply their trade with a brush and oils - need businesses to keep them afloat.

Yet it seems business also needs the arts, as major arts and business tie-ins such as Northern Bank and the Lyric Theatre attest.

The south Belfast venue - which reopened last year after being rebuilt - and new city centre arts venue the Mac are strong examples of how arts and business are working together.

Both the MAC and Lyric have been praised as architectural gems which have lifted the image of the city and Northern Ireland as a whole. In fact, a Daily Telegraph journalist said they were "among the best British buildings built this century".

According to charity Arts and Business, which promotes partnership between culture and commerce, there was investment of £6.6m in the arts in Northern Ireland in the year 2010/2011, of which £2.7m came from business sponsorship.

That sum was down 7% on the year before, reflecting a similar fall across the UK.

At a micro level, a knowledge of business can improve things for fine artists in Northern Ireland, who typically make £7,000 a year at their craft.

Artist Adrian Margey, who is researching a PhD on entrepreneurship in the arts, said knowing business is crucial to building a viable arts practice. "Essentially you are your own boss if you are an artist. And while arts organisations are not non-profit organisations, they still need money to function."

Funding cuts makes the environment more challenging but he thinks there is a "growing appetite" for an entrepreneurial approach, which he said should be encouraged in art colleges.

And the MAC and Lyric are important symbols of confidence for Northern Ireland's artists. "Not only only does the work they are creating and showcasing send out a message of cultural value, but they also show Belfast is a good place to work and live, and it proves we are not a cultural backwater."

Arts venues such as the MAC are positioning themselves for a wide audience, including businesses. And that doesn't just mean corporate entertainment but instead hiring out their spaces to businesses for away days and board meetings.

Anne McReynolds, chief executive of the MAC, said: "Hiring out our spaces to companies is not our core business but it's absolutely critical to our sustainability.

"The MAC is a civic building largely built with public funds so its benefits are to be shared with members of the public and corporations alike.

"We have an entire floor which was built with conferences and seminars in mind, though it also contains dance studios and rehearsal spaces."

The MAC has benefited from corporate sponsorship, most notably from Ulster Bank, while she revealed that it is in negotiation with a utility company, a global firm and another financial institution.

She said sponsoring an arts organisation reflected well on a business: "There's something about being connected to the community in which you are operating that's important."

In 2007 during the embryonic days of its development, the MAC held a fundraising dinner with guest of honour Hollywood actress Meryl Streep.

"The corporate sector supported us very significantly at that," she said.

"I can't go into specific details but we raised over £100,000 in one evening."

But she said the value of a corporate deal had to be mutual.

"That is the absolute key to a successful relationship to the corporate sector. The relationship must be mutually beneficial.

"That has started to happen in Northern Ireland, and it tends to be enlightened and progressive businesses connected to a global organisation which understand that there's a business value to entering into a sponsorship agreement with an arts organisation."

That doesn't mean a simple hand-out.

"When I talk to potential partners and sense they see it as a hand-out, I know it's not going to work," she stressed.

"I am happy to talk to philanthropists but that's not the only conversation I want to be having with potential corporate partners. We want to know how we can help their business concerns and where an alliance can help mutual values."

London law firm Allen and Overy, which has a back office in Belfast, has also become involved in the MAC.

"They recognise the benefits of being connected in a meaningful way with an organisation in the broader community in which they are operating."

Other partners include the Belfast Telegraph and Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

Paul Artherton, a funding consultant to arts organisations, said businesses see giving to the arts differently in the present climate.

"They certainly want it more as an investment and they want a return on their money rather than a philanthropic donation. A couple of years ago it was just seen as a nice thing to do.

"Now they are thinking, how will it relate to our customer base, how will it engage them, will it be an advantage to us, our clients and our customers?

"Arts fundraising is pretty tough at the best of times but in the context of a recession it's made it a lot harder. There are as many, if not more, organisations, fighting for a smaller piece of the pie.

"In general terms, organisations would have regarded corporate sponsorship in the past as the icing on the cake but now it's really an essential element of what they need because of static funding from the statutory sector."

Mary Trainor-Nagele, chief executive of Arts and Business, said businesses were getting much more strategic about decisions.

"They look for the investment potential and the financial return and they see the arts as a key priority to differentiate themselves and think more innovatively about how they do business."

She pointed to the link up between Northern Bank and the Lyric as a prime example of the new model of funding.

"The main stage is called the Northern Bank stage, so it's a very prominent sponsorship for them. Employees are kept fully informed of all productions and a number were recruited to become ambassadors and promote it to their clients.

"They sit in on dress rehearsals, attend readings and meet cast and come and act as corporate hosts. They even write reviews for the internal bank communications and promote it in work."

The Northern Bank deal is thought to be worth a five-figure sum every year - but it's not just the major deals which reflect arts and business working together.

Even smaller organisations have benefited from corporate funding, such Happenstance Theatre Company, which worked with solicitors Edwards & Co.

Replay Theatre Company joined up with Brennan's Bread, while Cahoots Theatre Company was involved in a scheme with Northern Bank for educating children about maths. Skeagh Eggs also developed a sketch with Cahoots.

Such deals are typically be worth around £10,000.

Ms Trainor-Nagele also cited 'in-kind' support, which can include businesses giving support to arts organisation through mentoring, advice and services.

"There is a lot more enhanced interest with engaging in the arts through partnerships that are very strategic and very focused.

"There is a real interest from Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster as an advocate for the arts and the impact of the arts on the economy. She said that when she is attracting business they are impressed by evidence of a vibrant arts scene.

"Overall, businesses need to think differently to differentiate themselves."

The companies putting their money into Lyric Theatre

While the Arts Council and Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure are its main funders, the Lyric Theatre is benefiting from corporate input through sponsorship, with its main auditorium bearing the name of headline sponsor Northern Bank.

The bank is signed up to sponsor the theatre for the next five years, with benefits to its card holders of a 20% discount on tickets to Lyric shows.

Insurance brokers AbbeyBondLovis sponsors its corporate lounge while coffee company Bailies supplies coffee to its cafe in an ‘in-kind’ deal.

Arts and Business sponsor the Lyric’s Sneaky Peek wall of TV screens.

Clear Pharmacy is another supporter while it also has a system called ‘corporate stars’ which is already supported by companies like fonaCab, IT firm CMI, the Errigle Inn, solicitors Cleaver Fulton Rankin and Hastings Hotels.

Northern Ireland's best known philanthropists

  • Sir Allen McClay: The founder of Almac, who died two years ago, founded the McClay Foundation to promote medical research and became one of Queen's University's biggest donors, giving the establishment around £20m. His generosity led Sir George Bain, former Queen's vice chancellor, to describe him as Northern Ireland's most significant philanthropist.
  • Martin Naughton: The Glen Dimplex founder gave £1m to the rebuilding of the Lyric and funded the Naughton Gallery at Queen's. He and his wife were presented with the first Arts Philanthropy Medal following their donation to the Lyric. He also established the Martin Naughton Chair in Business Strategy at Queen's