At the "confluence of passion and pragmatism," as one executive puts it, a handful of companies across the U.S. continue to support arts organizations in an economy not given to song and dance. The fine arts have been roughed up by this recession, some fatally, like the Baltimore Opera Company. But enterprises such as Omaha Steaks, Target, AutoZone and Olive Garden--despite struggling themselves--are standing by commitments to keep dance troupes, museums, orchestras and theater groups alive one burger, towel set, windshield wiper and pizza at a time.
It's not an easy choice, particularly for companies in layoff mode. But executives believe the arts are a good investment, a relatively inexpensive brand polisher, as well as a community-development engine and a key in promoting a region as a good place to live and do business. So sponsorships, cash gifts, in-kind service offerings and other donations are still being given. "Companies need to market themselves ... so there's always opportunity out there," says Gail Bower, a sponsorship and marketing consultant in Philadelphia.
Darden Restaurants Inc., a firm based in Orlando, Fla., that runs nearly 1,800 Olive Gardens, Red Lobsters and other outlets, continues to dish out $100,000 in annual cash support to the local ballet, a 35-year-old outfit whose budget is under pressure. "Darden has been gold to us, absolute gold," gushes Sibille Pritchard, the Orlando Ballet's loquacious president, "when the climate for the arts is tough, very tough." Notes Darden spokesman Bob McAdam: "You can't give up on the arts. They're essential to the general welfare of the community."
The Pacific Symphony in Southern California's Orange County won't be playing the sounds of silence anytime soon, thanks to the Farmers & Merchants Bank, one of many corporate benefactors. "The arts are a very rich part of the fabric of a region, and these organizations depend on companies like ours for support," explains Henry Walker, the family-owned institution's executive vice president, who sits on the symphony's board. "We feel we have a responsibility to them."
Of the Pacific Symphony's $17.5 million annual budget, close to $2 million comes from corporate contributions, according to president John Forsyte: "We're scaling back our events, but even companies that may be in rough shape are sticking by us in one way or another."
Across the U.S., the arts picture isn't pretty. The American Musical Theater in San Jose, Calif., and the 82-year-old Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul are gone. A $125 million expansion at the St. Louis Art Museum is on ice. The Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra canceled its 2009-10 season, and members of the Honolulu Symphony have gone unpaid. The lobbying group Americans for the Arts estimates that some 10,000 arts-related organizations could close this year.
Still, AutoZone, which generates $6 billion in annual revenues, will donate $200,000 this year to the arts in its home city of Memphis, Tenn., as it has since 1993. And Target Corp. continues to devote 5% of its pretax profits--$3 million a week--to charities and outfits like the Pacific Symphony. "When the economy is struggling, the arts help people move forward," says Todd Simon, senior vice president of family-owned Omaha Steaks. "We take a long-term view of our business and a long-term view of our community."