Corporate Sponsorship: On Target? Off Base?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Currently hanging outside the East Wing of the National Gallery is a large banner of Jasper Johns's 1955 "Target With Four Faces," advertising a show celebrating the first decade of his work. The painting is dominated by the title motif: a blue dot surrounded by four concentric circles of alternating yellow and blue. Walking in recently, I joked to my companion that I was surprised that Target wasn't sponsoring the show.

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

It turns out Target is sponsoring it, "proudly," in fact.

Offering financial backing to the exhibition was undoubtedly a savvy move for Target. After all, the show is filled with paintings that, though they aren't red and white, evoke Target's corporate logo. Johns's targets also appear on the exhibition catalogue and posters for sale in the gift shop. On the busy Sunday I was there, hundreds of people were strolling through, staring intently at various depictions of an image that has been engrained in our heads as standing for one of America's most powerful and successful companies.

As a groundbreaker for the Pop Art movement, Johns was very much interested in symbols, everyday household objects and popular culture, so perhaps the exhibition ought not to trouble me as much as it does. But I left that day feeling rather sick to my stomach.

The corporation as art critic may be inevitable. The wealthy members of society, in their role as patrons, have always had a profound influence on the course of art. But the current trend does not sit well with me. If financial realities force museums to cede control to corporate America, art may lose its magic. The artists and works to be celebrated will not be those that inspire, explain or expose, but those that get people to buy more Taco Bell burritos, iPods and Michelin radials. The very definition of art will be that which maximizes shareholder profit.

While the Johns show, which runs through April 29, presents a particularly strong example of rising corporate influence over the art world, it is not an isolated instance. Last summer I was wandering through "Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting" in the West Wing, wondering why the curators had devoted so much space in the exhibition to how x-radiographs and infrared images could be used to reveal insights into the creative process. Perhaps it arose from a genuine sense that the public needed to be educated on important technological innovations in the world of curatorship, but then -- call me cynical -- perhaps it was because the exhibition was made possible by Bracco, an international leader in diagnostic imaging.

So, what is to be done?

First, if we care about art -- if we value it as a social good -- we must increase public funding so that museum directors and artists can remain independent. While the United States is unlikely to shift to the centralized European model of art sponsorship, the federal government's stingy arts budget could be increased without any of us feeling much of a bite in our pocketbooks.

Second, we should demand that corporations give money to art galleries without sponsoring particular shows. If Target is really committed to "arts and education," as it says in the Johns show brochure, then it should be just as satisfied with its donation going to support the excellent exhibit on Rembrandt's prints and drawings in the adjoining building.

-- Adam Benforado

Falls Church

The writer is a lawyer and art history buff. His e-mail address is

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