Thursday, July 30, 2009

know your funders

The corporate arts world lost one of its pioneers this week. In an obituary published in its July 27 edition, the New York Times chronicled the life and achievements of George Weissman, who passed away at the age of 90; He was largely responsible for funneling of cigarette money to the arts via Phillip Morris (later rebranded Altria).

Mr. Weissman began his corporate ascent in the movie and public relations businesses, and one of his early tasks as a young marketing executive at Philip Morris — which became part of the Altria group in 2003 — was to help develop the very effective masculine mythology of Marlboro cigarettes.

He applied similar deftness when Philip Morris acquired Miller Brewing in 1969 and came up with the new Miller Lite brand.

Mr. Weissman also pushed Philip Morris to become a major donor to arts groups, particularly experimental undertakings like the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He said in an interview with The New York Times in 1990 that the arts initiative began with a traveling exhibition of modern art in 1965.

“We wanted to demonstrate to our own employees that we were an open-minded company seeking creativity in all aspects of our business,” Mr. Weissman said. “And we were determined to do this by sponsoring things that made a difference, that were really dangerous.”

In an interview with Forbes in 1983, he said that giving to the arts also impressed customers, and that more people go to museums than ballgames.

I don't smoke. Cigarettes are bad for you. I also try to avoid the Kraft "family" brands, as they are also largely bad for you. Those are individual decisions -- do they naturally carry over to the artistic organization you're trying to forge? If so, where is the line when you're looking for funding? Do you decline money when its source is tainted? How clean does your funding need to be? As an organization soliciting funds, do hold individuals to different standards than corporations? Should you search for every penny (especially pennies that don't dictate content), and hope the good you do with your output outweighs the evil of the money's source? These are questions that are best settled at the outset, since the answers could have an enormous impact on the scope of your funding down the line? It's important to know whether such questions bother the members of a group -- if they do at all. From the obit:

[Weissman] seemed to have trouble understanding the view of those who argued that arts organizations should refuse tobacco money as tainted. “Do you stop the Bolshoi from coming here because you don’t believe in the Russian system?” he said in an interview with The Times in 1987.

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