alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.

Art World In Bed with Philip Morris

The exhibition at New York's Museum of Contemporary Art was supposed to be a public relations coup for Philip Morris. The tobacco company, following a long-standing policy of supporting avant garde arts, was sponsoring the exhibit, entitled, "1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art." Instead of the media bonanza the company has come to expect from its good corporate citizenship, 11 of the 55 artists assaulted the natural order of things by noisily protesting Philip Morris' sponsorship. Alongside their work, artists tacked up a statement: "As much as we agree with this particular exhibition, we disagree with this sponsor." Artist Hans Haacke, no stranger to protests against Philip Morris, particularly the company's rather incongruous practice of funding the aspirations, political and artistic, of North Carolina's archconservative Sen. Jesse Helms, went them one better. Haacke wrote a long letter on the subject. "Only from the invitation to the opening did I learn that Philip Morris Companies, Inc., a corporation that has been rightly accused of unethical conduct, is sponsoring the event," he wrote. "At the last minute, I could have pulled my work in protest. Inevitably, however, it would still have been in the catalogue. In effect, Philip Morris would have been handed a curatorial role in a facet of the exhibition that I care about. Silent acquiescence in the exploitation of my work and name for the public relations campaign of a peddler of carcinogens was equally unsatisfactory. At the risk of being accused of grandstanding, I have therefore chosen to publicly express my outrage." That was last October. This spring, for the first time, similar protests sprung up on the West Coast. This time, however, the objectors were not the artists themselves, but the viewing public. On the heels of a successful effort to rid the Del Mar State Fair of a sponsorship by Marlboro cigarettes, a group of activists representing such interests as the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association threatened to protest a summer sculpture show at the San Diego Museum of Art. Normally the delicate sponsorship negotiations between museums and corporations are as secret as a Masonic handshake. But these are political times (particularly with a Republican National Convention coming to San Diego soon) and with politics come leaks. The museum's relationship with Philip Morris was called into question by anti-tobacco lobbyists when the company asked to use the museum for a convention reception. Somehow word got out that the museum was asking the makers of Marlboro cigarettes to fund a sculpture exhibit opening there this summer. This arrangement played handily into the activists' itch to make the area smoke-free. The protest was well timed, too, coinciding with the May 31 World Health Organization's international 'No Tobacco Day.' The theme for this year was the rejection of tobacco company sponsorship of sports and arts events. "This was such an ironic thing," says Marti Snow, spokesperson for the San Diego Museum of Art. "We had a very nice relationship with Philip Morris and they had sponsored four or five exhibitions. They sponsored two here last year. But we reluctantly ended negotiations because it became very distracting for us to continue. Our mission is to present art and not to get ourselves involved with defending ourselves against special interest groups. It was a very, very difficult decision for our board, but the board decided it was becoming a major distraction to our mission here." The decision to reject money from Philip Morris for political reasons was unprecedented for a museum. "Most of these organizations are so needy they don't look gift horses in the mouth," says Bill Reinhard, executive editor of the monthly trade newsletter Corporate Philanthropy Report. "Arts organizations say Philip Morris is instrumental, especially for museum and dance groups, in helping, going beyond the norm. They give money for more unusual exhibits." In fact, the San Diego museum is now having a hard time finding money to make up for the funds it lost on the sculpture exhibit. "We're scrambling, I'll tell you," says Snow. "We have some local sponsors now. Although it was difficult, we decided to put the show on anyway. We felt in fairness to the artist, we had organized the show and everything was ready to put out, we would continue." Still, clearly, without the threat of public protests, the museum would not have considered looking into this particular gift horse's mouth; in fact, even now Philip Morris' breath seems sweet to the museum. "Philip Morris has a spotless track record of art funding," says Snow. "They have a great reputation. They're very knowledgeable, they're very wide ranging (they've sponsored Latin American, Judaica, African art) and we were pleased to be in negotiations with them." And why not? Philip Morris is, after all, more than just a tobacco company; even though its 1995 tobacco sales totaled $32.3 billion. It is part of Philip Morris Companies, Inc., the second largest food company in the country, makers of Post cereals, Kraft cheeses, Maxwell House coffee, Oscar Mayer meats and Toblerone chocolate, to name just a few familiar brand names that worldwide, earned $29 billion for the company last year. Additionally, the company is the third-largest brewer in the U.S., the manufacturer of popular beers such as Red Dog and Molson. The company employs 150,000 people worldwide. And it just happens to be one of the biggest supporters of the arts in the country. "The art world would be in deep trouble without Philip Morris," says Mark Rosenthal, curator of 20th century art at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. "The company prides itself on funding cutting-edge art and it's the most difficult thing to fund. They're helping where the help is needed most. It would be disastrous if it wasn't there." As far as most people in the arts world are concerned, Philip Morris is a fairy godmother. The corporate till is, apparently, bottomless. The application process is simple and the company never, ever, attaches strings to the artistic content of the shows it funds. In many ways, the company is so far beyond reproach as far as art organizations are concerned that discussion of possible public reaction to the tobacco company's sponsorship of shows rarely, if ever, comes up. That was before the war on tobacco heated up. Now, with new evidence that tobacco companies have tampered with nicotine levels to hook smokers, anti-tobacco sentiments have sharpened. A handful of states are filing suit against tobacco companies holding them responsible for state-reimbursed medical costs incurred by people sick and dying of smoking related illnesses. After all, an estimated 400,000 people die every year as a result of smoking. And, as some arts organizations are finding, it's time to pay the piper. In 1994, when New York City moved to ban smoking from restaurants, Philip Morris asked arts organizations to let the city council know that if the company pulled its funding, it would be a dark day for the arts. Not only would some major institutions be short of money, their boards of directors would be short of people. Executives of Philip Morris, past and present, sit on boards at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, Lincoln Center and the Joffrey dance company. As one arts group put it, Philip Morris is the "Gold Card" of arts funding. Such munificence is increasingly rare in this era of corporate downsizing and government cutbacks in arts funding. Many struggling arts groups say they can't survive without Philip Morris's support. In fact, many see it as excessively punitive that the anti-tobacco lobbyists want arts organizations to just say no. Beggars can't be choosers, after all. Besides, they wonder, are members of the American Lung Association boycotting Jell-O? Or Bill Cosby, who shills for the company? Or are only artists supposed to suffer for everyone's sins? Arts organizations are quick to point out that they aren't defending smoking, just their art. "Very few fortunes in the world were achieved through goodness," James Kraft, the Whitney Museum's assistant director of development, is quoted as saying in Ashes To Ashes, America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, a new book about Philip Morris by reporter Richard Kluger (Knopf; April, 1996). In other words, it doesn't matter to many where the money comes from, as long as it keeps coming. So, just what does Philip Morris receive in return for such inspired philanthropy? Well, the company specializes in sponsoring three specific categories of art: the avant garde, educational art and any thing African American or ethnic. Additionally, many observers freely admit that but for the support of Philip Morris, there would be virtually no dance company left in America. Supporting arts that target young audiences, people of color and affiliating the product with sophisticated, beautiful and healthy people is pure marketing genius, especially as tobacco companies are looking increasingly to minority and third-world markets. Putting on tours of dance companies and art shows also brings greater national visibility, as does sponsoring block busters such as the "Picasso and Portraiture" show currently displayed at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Having all those spaces available to entertain clients certainly makes the company look like a good corporate citizen, too. Does the company do this out of the goodness of its heart? "George Weissman [former chairman of Philip Morris] was deeply committed to having the corporation support the arts," says Jillian Slonim of the American Federation for the Arts. "It's probably the preeminent funder for the arts. Philip Morris is always the leader." Weissman himself put it more bluntly. "Let's be clear about one thing," he said in 1980. "Our fundamental interest in the arts is self-interest."Calling one arts organization in New York and asking about Philip Morris is like throwing a boulder into a pond. The waves are felt all over the city, almost instantly. A single call to the American Federation for the Arts prompted unsolicited calls to this reporter from some of the Big Apple's most powerful PR agencies. All of them represent one or another aspect of Philip Morris and were eager to be "helpful." There was, it turns out, good reason for such an immediate chain reaction. Stephanie French, vice president of corporate contributions and cultural programs for Philip Morris, is also on the board of directors for the American Federation for the Arts, which is currently putting together two major tours of exhibitions sponsored by, you guessed it, Philip Morris. Scratch the surface of the New York City arts scene and you'll find the tracks of Philip Morris. The company began its love affair with high culture by hanging art on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in its New York corporate headquarters and factory buildings in the 1950s. Thirty years later, in 1982, when the company's new World Headquarters Building was completed in Manhattan, a branch of the Whitney was included in plans for the structure. By 1988 the Wall Street Journal was calling Philip Morris, "a twentieth-century corporate Medici, the art world's favorite company." At the time the company was spending $10 million to $15 million a year on the arts nationwide. "One of our great themes is innovation and contemporary work," says New York-based Karen Brosius, director of corporate contributions for Philip Morris. "It really enhances our quality of life, it enhances our communities, we see it as attracting employees. We are also able to take a leadership role." Since the beginning, the company has attached its name and the money that goes with it to some of the most ground-breaking shows. It began with Pop and Op in 1965, a show that included 65 works by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and James Rosenquist, whose art was just beginning to make a splash on the New York scene. Philip Morris not only sponsored the show, it actually commissioned half the paintings in it. Since the 1970s, the company has been funding works by African Americans, Native Americans and Latino artists, beginning with "Contemporary Black Artists" in 1970 which toured to 12 American cities and "Two Hundred Years of North American Indian Art" organized by New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. The company cites among its most notable exhibits, the 1976 traveling show "Two Centuries of Black American Art," the first comprehensive exhibition of African-American art ever offered that toured to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas and New York City, and "The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States, 1920-1970," a scholarly investigation of Latino artists in 1988 that went to New York, Texas, Florida and California. It is these kinds of shows that allow Philip Morris to make inroads with both the arts and the ethnic communities. Recently, the Wadsworth Atheneum hosted its first ever Philip Morris-sponsored exhibition: the traveling exhibition of the work of African American painter and muralist John Biggers. The national tour brought this long overlooked artist to the widest audience to date. "Philip Morris has been a strong supporter of African-American artists and we have a very strong commitment to showing African-American art," says Kristin Mortimer, acting director of the Wadsworth. "We took the exhibition on the basis of artistic merit and so sponsorship wasn't an issue. It may be inevitable that museums are becoming more politicized. But I think that museums are kind of being put between a rock and a hard place with this. Especially with all the federal cutbacks, Philip Morris has been one of the strongest supporters of the arts." As a result, few institutions question approaching the company for funds. Certainly it didn't come up for discussion at the Wadsworth. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which could have had its pick of sponsors for its monumental Picasso show, Philip Morris was the first choice, not the last resort. "We're not sponsor-driven in any way," says Liz Addison, deputy director of communication and marketing at MOMA. "We've had a long-term relationship with them and our hope is we'll continue to have one." For other organizations, Philip Morris is a godsend. The company offers not only sponsorships for big splashy exhibitions, but consistent funding to help pay electric bills and salaries, the kind of money that doesn't lend itself to lots of free publicity and the kind of cash that is therefore, harder to raise. Moreover, unlike government arts funding, Philip Morris requires a couple of pages of description with the application, instead of 14 forms in triplicate and places no restrictions on the art itself. "The National Endowment for the Arts has put all kinds of censorship language into their grants," says Sharon Luckman, executive director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. "Philip Morris has never meddled in the artistic product, never asked us to change our artistic product in any way, which makes them wonderful funders." Part of the reason for such restrictive NEA requirements, of course, has been intensive lobbying against federal arts funding by Sen. Jesse Helms. The senator, interestingly, also benefits from Philip Morris' generosity. He received $5,000 in campaign contributions from Philip Morris in 1995. Additionally, his own museum project, the Jesse Helms Citizenship Center at Wingate College in North Carolina, received $200,000 from the company in 1990. A Helms' spokesman says he sees no conflict between supporting Philip Morris and opposing the NEA, noting that the NEA debate is fueled by the fact that the agency is publicly funded. There is little question, however, that Helms' role in crippling the NEA has only magnified Philip Morris' generous profile in the arts. Artists like Hans Haacke, however, do make the connection between Philip Morris' ruthlessness in the marketplace and its largesse in the arts. In 1990, the John Weber Gallery in New York displayed Helmsboro, a mixed media piece that depicted a giant pack of what looked like Marlboro cigarettes containing "20 Bills of Rights." On side of the piece was a warning, in place of the Surgeon General's warning, attributed instead to Philip Morris chairman George Weissman. It read: "Let's be clear about one thing. Our fundamental interest in the arts is self-interest. There are immediate and pragmatic benefits to be derived as business entities." Even in the face of protests, however, prominent minority arts groups cannot afford to lose Philip Morris' prime patronage. Tobacco money, for instance, comprises half of all corporate donations coming into the New York-based Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Philip Morris funds the dance company's national and international tours, as well as its performances in the city, including its annual gala. Alvin Ailey, quite simply, can't afford to lose this prime patronage, even in the face of protests. "We've heard very little complaint about taking Philip Morris money. We've gotten one or two letters where people have asked about it," says Luckman, "but what is going to make up that money? That person's not going to, the government's not going to, especially right now. We've just lost $250,000 in government support. If we also lost Philip Morris support we wouldn't be able to do half the things we do now. Philip Morris supports all the major dance companies and always has. Philip Morris supported dance before they were controversial. I look at it that way, rather than looking at it as they are targeting an African-American institution." So what does Philip Morris get in return? Well, when New York's restaurant smoking ban was proposed, Luckman was among the many who called a couple of people she knew on the city council to let them know how important the company's continued presence was to the cultural life of the city. "I told them if Philip Morris did move out of the city, it would be very harmful to us. Nobody has stepped forward with any alternate money," says Luckman. Additionally, she says, "Philip Morris buys tickets to Alvin Ailey performances and they sometimes have client entertainment parties before or after a performance. They might ask for a dancer to be there. It's a win-win situation for us, that's helping us because they buy tickets. We also have their name on our posters and advertisements for the season. It's a small, tasteful credit line. They have never asked us to do anything that would interfere with the artistic product."Unlike many corporations that, traditionally, have funded the arts through separate foundations, Philip Morris pays for the artistic endeavors it supports directly. The company, in fact, has a staff dedicated to arts grant writing. For a company to make its contributions to the arts so integral to its business as a whole is most unusual. According to Robb Hankins , director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council in Connecticut, and a close observer of corporate fund-raising for the arts, it is becoming more common. "Corporations that have high profiles and have something to sell are struggling with whether there is a difference between marketing and contribution dollars," he says. "In the good old days, you had a contributions budget and you had a marketing budget and in most cases they were separate pots of money. It is very common to go to national conferences now and have people from Coca Cola tell you there is one budget now: marketing. Philip Morris has always had to find new ways to market their products because some of its old marketing doors have been closed to cigarettes." The company's defenders point out, of course, that Philip Morris had been a supporter of the arts long before the company's primary product became controversial. Nonetheless, sponsorship of arts and sports events that would lead to positive association with the company really increased after broadcast advertising bans took effect in 1971. The resultant strategy seemed to be to fund typically underfunded shows, like African-American art, for instance, seeking what some anti-smoking advocates have called "innocence by association." Still, even people who would like to see the tobacco company's sponsorship become a thing of the past have to admit that it's a tough war to win when so few others are willing to ante up to fund the arts. "The people who receive the money are desperate for their shows and some of them claim there is very little alternative money," says Brenda Bell Caffee, director of the California-based African American Tobacco Education Network. "The Harlem Dance Troupe would never have been as successful as it is was without Philip Morris backing. It's something we all have to deal with. Once they start sponsoring it is considerably harder for us to come in and say don't take the money." And yet, that is precisely what the Tobacco Education Network has done. Philip Morris' policy of giving consistently, but often smaller amounts (the grants can be as little as $2,500 to $5,000) has helped Caffee propose alternative funding. "Usually it's something that can be matched," she says. Even so, it's tough to win over converts in the battle with the formidable and persistent tobacco industry. "Even the Black Americans Against Cancer organization has been approached by the tobacco companies for event sponsorship," she adds. "We offer many very small sponsorships to persons who have refused. We sat down and said it would be far better to get a lot of small sponsorships than $100,000. Unfortunately, they've got the money. We say, we'll give you $5,000 to do it and hope we'll play on their conscience." But taking the moral high ground is often a luxury that historically underfunded arts organizations can rarely afford. "You have people saying don't take this money, don't take that, but what are we to do?" says the National Gallery's Rosenthal. "If it was illegal people could say you're taking dirty money but it's not. Are we the keepers of some kind of idealism that no one else is? We're non-profits trying to propagate art, of all things, and they make us go around begging all the time. The government is helping us so little it's pathetic. I don't want to encourage anyone to smoke, but thank God for them, that's how I feel." Caffee sees it a little differently. Philip Morris, she says, is "savvy to the point where you look at the advertising and you want it. They do wonderful black heritage things. Somehow, people have embedded in their minds that the industry must be our friend. Certainly, that's what you hear most of all. Everything from 'They owe it to us' to 'The tobacco industry should put it back into our communities because we are primary users.' I remind them that whatever you're getting in return for it is not as much as what we paid. With sponsoring our events the industry is just taking advantage of a situation." A major target of Philip Morris' advertising campaigns from 1989 to 1991 was the African-American market, according to Caffee. Between 1991 and 1995 , the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control reported that smoking by African American males from the ages of 14 to 27 nearly doubled. A coincidence? Caffee doesn't think so. Given the restrictions on TV advertising, she points to increased sponsorship and targeting African-American magazines as the cause. But the savviest marketing ploy of Philip Morris may be the niche the company has carved for itself in the arts. When Alvin Ailey celebrated its 35th anniversary in 1993, for instance, it did so in conjunction with Philip Morris' celebration of 35 years of sponsorship of the arts. The occasion was marked by a free dance presentation in Central Park that drew over 30,000 people. Philip Morris picked up the tab in return for high visibility and good press. "It's complicit. They fund the arts and they also promote their sales. They make themselves look great but they also fund Jesse Helms. It's a very complicated relationship, it's like sleeping in bed with the enemy. People in the arts are compromising," says Elyse Goldberg, director of the John Weber Gallery in New York, which has close ties to artist Hans Haacke; and no ties to Philip Morris. Few artists can afford to turn down shows. But those, like Haacke, that have certainly drawn attention to how widespread Philip Morris sponsorship is and what drives the company's good corporate citizenship. Drawing attention to the tobacco company's intentions, particularly as it increases its sponsorship of the arts abroad, is precisely why the World Health Organization made its annual "No Tobacco Day" campaign about turning away sports and arts sponsorship. "I think clearly, in some countries where there have been restrictions placed on tobacco advertising, the tobacco industry has moved towards sponsorship of sports and arts to get the brands recognized," says Daniel Epstein, information officer at the World Health Organization. "It helps them to reach a large audience and associate their products with positive images and there are no health warnings to disturb the effect, as there would be with advertising." It is no doubt true, as Jillian Slonim of the American Federation for the Arts argues, that "a huge audience has been really enfranchised by Philip Morris." It is also obvious that Philip Morris hopes that by identifying new audiences for the arts, it will also find a larger consumer base for its products.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close