Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jan. 16 2015
It usually ends up on the back of the theatre program, somewhere in the soupy mess of logos and names of various banks or energy companies. In exchange for a financial donation – tiredly given the “silver, gold and platinum” ranking – corporate largesse is recognized with the company logo slapped alongside those of the other funders.
In a vision statement, does any company say: “We strive to have our logo appear at every art house film event” or “We will have free jazzfest tickets to give to our best clients”?
What companies often do claim is that they will be creative. They will be innovative. They will exceed at coming up with great ideas – ideas, in fact, that can change the course of the world. Those are vision statements.
Corporate sponsorship of the arts has the potential to be something much more powerful than the feel-good recognition on opening night. Companies all want creative employees and innovative products. But the necessary bridge between creativity and innovation is collaboration – the act of allowing someone else’s experience to change the way you see the world.
Here’s where artists can offer some practical assistance. Artists are not unlike the rest of us in that what they strive to do is design solutions to problems. Corporations have problems to solve as well. But rather than trying to think up new products or ways to cut costs, artists grapple with other design issues – and in many ways, more complex ones. How can I use these paints to express joy? What words can I string together that will make the reader weep at their beauty? How can I sing this note to convey pain and grief?
To the cynic, art is a self-indulgent waste of time and money. These people will never be convinced of its merit anyway (so they can stop reading now if they wish). But more insightful corporate leaders will not only value the arts for their own sake, they’ll also spot an opportunity to improve their companies’ creative capacity.
Artists live in a silo away from the corporate world and sometimes they have themselves to blame. Sadly, many artists regard companies as sell-outs driven only by greed. Some even foolishly believe that profit motivation itself is unethical. They don’t recognize that they may also benefit by seeing the world through the eyes of a chief financial officer, a human resource vice-president or a district sales manager.
If they think of the corporate world at all, some artists only think of them as a source of funding. Filling out endless grant applications and hoping for the best eats up valuable energy that could be spent on other more useful pursuits.
It’s time to entirely rethink corporate sponsorship of the arts. Forget the silly logo on the back of the program or the complimentary tickets to the play. What artists can offer is much more valuable: a chance to peer into the mind of a choreographer, a singer, a set designer, a writer. How do they solve complex problems? And what insights can this bring to corporate leaders who are trying to solve problems of their own?
In the end it comes down to something neurologists know very well. If you want to become a creative person, you have to force your brain to see new patterns, unfamiliar terrain and uncomfortable situations. Sitting in a boardroom full of people with the same university degree and the same clothes (think dull blue suits and boring shoes) will do nothing to foster creative, innovative visionaries.
Why don’t artists offer those corporate suits something really valuable? The pitch should be: “Give us $100,000 and we’ll show you how we solve problems and design solutions. You’ll think we’re crazy – and quite possibly we are – but if you allow yourselves the chance, you’ll start to change the way your brain operates. Creativity can’t be taught, but it can be developed.”
Companies can transform the way their leaders think. But another two-day retreat with Post-it Notes and drumming circles won’t do it. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Actually changing the way their brain works takes months, and indeed requires a lifestyle choice. And artists have much to contribute to the journey.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.