"Oh, take your next vacation in a brand new Frigidaire"

If you follow these things, you probably know by now that last week, Bank of America announced that it will no longer sponsor the Celebrity Series, one of the more venerable and reliable classical-music (and dance) concert promoters here in Boston. The Celebrity Series was founded in 1938 by Aaron Richmond (check out the first few seasons here, they’re pretty amazing)—since then, it’s operated under the auspices of Boston University, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts (soon to be the CitiCenter), and, since 1989, as a non-profit with Bank of Boston and its successors as lead sponsor. Three mergers later, North Carolina-based Bank of America is pulling out.

That’s fine—it’s their money, they can do with it what they like—but what’s with the disingenuous smarm?

[BoA Massachusetts President Robert] Gallery said it makes sense for the 68-year-old Celebrity Series to become more self-sufficient….

“These things have a life cycle, and this has been a pretty long run,” said Gallery. “We’re very proud of that, but every organization we work with, we want them to reach out to as broad a community as they can to develop as their funding base. No institution should be too dependent on one provider.”

Thanks for the advice, Polonius. Unfortunately, unlike your company, Bob, the Celebrity Series doesn’t have access to providers like, say, customers’ Social Security benefits, or $42 million in taxpayer-funded job retention subsidies (not that the last round of corporate welfare kept any of those jobs around), or $650 million in 9/11 Liberty Bonds to build a new office, um, nowhere near Ground Zero.

Yeah, yeah, I could probably pull skeletons out of any corporate closet I peer into. But come on—do you really expect us to believe that Bank of America is yanking its funding as some form of tough love? This is a numbers game. It should also be another shovelful of cemetery soil on the notion that corporations view arts philanthropy as anything more than tax-deductible advertising.

BoA was contributing $600,000 a year to the Celebrity Series. The Celebrity Series pulls in about 100,000 people a year; that works out to six bucks a person. To compare, they’ve also given $5 million over the past two years to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, including underwriting this year’s big “Americans in Paris” exhibition; extrapolating out from the only numbers I could find, the “Americans in Paris” show drew about 100,000 people in approximately three months. The back-of-the-envelope math still works out to around six bucks a person ($5 mil/24 months/~30,000 people per month; there’s added benefits for BoA in that the exhibition also visited London and New York, but nobody’s talking as to how much exactly was spent, and I don’t think it would make a huge difference in the calculation).

But figure in the number of people passing through the museum who didn’t buy the extra ticket needed for the exhibition, along with the plethora of bus, billboard, and streetlight-banner advertising that the MFA pumped out, all featuring the BoA logo, and that’s a lot more corporate exposure for your buck. In other words, the Celebrity Series is getting dumped not because it’s less efficient than other arts organizations, but because it’s more poorly suited to ancillary advertising benefits. It doesn’t have its own building; it doesn’t get a lot of “passers-by” to glimpse a corporate logo as they walk through; it isn’t big enough (as, for example, the MFA or the BSO) to warrant the kind of civic boosterism exemplified by those ubiquitous streetlamp banners.

BoA talks about changing “priorities,” but the driving force behind those priorities isn’t artistic excellence or value to the community. It’s rather that the priorities are things BoA can permanently and physically slap its name on, the emphasis is on philanthropy that comes with a high-profile billboard for the brand. Why do you think BoA is shifting its performing arts support to free and/or open-air events—and concentrating more and more on museums? (Peruse this already out-of-date list.) Why do you think their competitor CitiGroup spent $34 million to rename the Wang Center? Why do you think (in the for-profit realm) BoA is also spending a ton of money to sponsor NASCAR, as close to a gravitational singularity of corporate branding as you can get?

Again, they’re just doing what good corporations do to build their brand. But there’s two forces at work here that musicians need to be aware of. As corporations get bigger and bigger, and are frequently operating far away from their own home base, corporate visibility and brand promotion will become the main goal of all non-operational activity; the personal relationships and local civic pride that support smaller, less splashy causes will become more and more abstract until they disappear completely. And if visibility is the key, let’s face it: music is not the most visible of art forms. It would appear that the transitory, elusive nature of music has a real-world financial cost, at least in a society where the free market reigns, and philanthropy is just another front in the war for eyeballs. There’s a built-in bias towards the visual arts and organizations with a bricks-and-mortar component; mid-level venue-renting classical music organizations like the Celebrity Series, too big to scrape by on government grants and small donations, too small to be attractive to increasingly huge corporations, are left high and dry.

What’s to be done? Not much, I’m afraid. There are possible tax structures to try and alleviate this—for example, you could tie deduction rates to geographic diversity for companies operating in multiple states, or a balance between large and small receiving organizations; you could give greater breaks for long-term support, either via year-to-year increases or favors on extended commitments—but they all have significant downsides, and, more importantly, they’d just be used by corporations as an excuse to be less philanthropic overall. You could aggressively enforce anti-trust legislation—ahhh, who am I kidding?

No, the problem here is that corporate philanthropy requires a free-market benefit, and the benefits of classical music are rather poorly perceived by the free market—and those benefits are downright invisible unless the guy who pays the piper can make him wear a sandwich-board as well. Maybe you’re you’re more sanguine than I am about private philanthropy stepping in to close the gap, but for me, it’s this sort of situation that government arts funding was invented for—fixing the holes that the free market leaves behind. Yes, the government is inefficient, and unresponsive, and often downright stupid, but at least there’s a veneer of accountability, and at least they’re not particularly worried about building their brand (domestically, anyways). Besides, the alternative is like a boyfriend who breaks up with you because you don’t have enough pictures of him on your wall, and then tries to tell you it’s for your own good.

(The title? From these guys. The rest.)

One comment

  1. Last year I moved my checking account from Bank of America to a smaller locally-owned bank. I did it because I was annoyed at BoA’s pushy salesmanship, but also out of a desire to support local businesses. Since then, I have noticed that my local bank has contributed money to our library renovation and park improvements. And last week I got a mailing allowing me to vote for an organization I’d like to see get a share of an annual donation the bank makes to local charities. So I really feel good that I’m supporting a business that gives back to the community.

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