Kate Vokes, Culture Director at Bruntwood, on the need to change the narrative around corporate sponsorship in light of Sir Michael Moritz’s ‘rescue’ of the Booker Prizes
Culture has always played a vital role at Bruntwood. As an organisation, we are champions of the arts, believing that they can make a significant change to the life and vibrancy of a city and its people. As Culture Director, I am responsible for keeping this value alive and for finding new ways to embed everything that culture has to offer in everything we do as a business.
I was particularly interested in the news that billionaire venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz has stepped in to secure the immediate future of the Booker Prizes, following the termination of Man Group’s 18-year tenure as named sponsor. An official quote from Moritz and his wife, Harriet Heyman, whose charitable foundation Crankstart will provide the funds, said: “Neither of us can imagine a day where we don’t spend time reading a book. The Booker prizes are ways of spreading the word about the insights, discoveries, pleasures and joy that spring from great fiction.”
This is great news for the arts and great for the Booker Prizes. It shows how a personal passion can lead to a meaningful charitable contribution to the arts. Yet, as you read around this story, and return to the media coverage in January about the Man Group’s decision to step away, what is alarming to those businesses that support the arts is a demonisation of the corporate sponsor. Much of the commentary in January highlighted criticism surrounding Man Group’s perceived excessive involvement in the running of the Prizes. This, plus the hostility towards Man Group shown by talent such as Sebastian Faulks, who notably called it “the enemy”, is a distraction from one vitally important fact: our arts organisations cannot do without corporate sponsorship.
The Booker Prize is a globally recognised brand; after 50 years, it has become part of our national fabric. I am certain that we have all read a prize-winning novel, or been influenced by ‘shortlist’ and ‘winner’ stickers. But what about those cultural offerings that don’t have the profile of the Booker? What about those other arts organisations, Prizes and Festivals that won’t see a philanthropist step forward to plug a funding gap in a time of need? Instead of apportioning blame, should we not be asking: how do we build vital partnerships or create meaningful sponsorship deals that are rewarding for both parties? Is it not time to reframe the narrative, moving from the perceived battle between the arts and business to a new vision of collaboration?
One way in which this can be achieved is by encouraging businesses to focus on local partnerships which are based on a rich understanding of both the organisation and the community it serves. It is for this reason that the majority of our partnerships are rooted within our local community - whether that’s the Bruntwood Prize, which is run out of one of Manchester’s leading performing arts venues, or supporting the brilliant minds of the future through our partnership with the Manchester School of Art. Like Moritz, we are proud of our roots and we want to invest back into the community.
When we launched the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in partnership with the Royal Exchange Theatre in 2005, we were very clear we wanted the Prize to stand as an example of best practice for other businesses looking to support the arts. Whilst we want the Prize to receive the recognition it deserves, the vital payoff is in inspiring a new generation of playwrights - because we know how important theatre is to our society, both at a local and national level. As Kwame Kwei Armah, 2019 Bruntwood Prize Chair of judges and Artistic Director at the Young Vic, says: the Prize is a “profound and essential part of our cultural ecology for playwrights”.
The bone of contention in most failing partnerships is the censorship imposed upon arts organisations by their corporate partners, and rightly so. This is not a partnership, in my eyes. We believe corporate sponsorships should not be moderating: they should allow unbounded freedom of expression, which can only be achieved through real and meaningful partnerships. Sometimes, this will mean a sponsor is embedded in the structure of the project or event being delivered, as in our case; in other cases, it will be a more hands-off sponsorship. Either way, it is vital that the objectives and motivations of both parties are aligned and there is integrity at the heart of the partnership.
When it comes to the Bruntwood Prize, we know the prize stands for nothing if playwrights are not encouraged to engage in political and social discourse. Through the Prize, we encounter genuinely new ideas and have access to new stories and new voices that are quietly revolutionary. In a world that seems increasingly fractured and insular, we need the communal experience of theatre and the clamorous voices of playwrights now more than ever. The same applies to literature and the new works the Booker Prizes shine a light on, and to all of the voices represented within the arts.
For arts and culture to thrive in the UK, there must be a mixed funding model. As there is less public funding on offer, income from other sources is key, be it philanthropic or corporate. Of course, some partnerships will fall wide of the mark (when it’s simply a case of throwing money at an arts organisation for coverage), but there are many worthwhile partnerships where the activities and organisations being funded relate directly to the sponsor’s strategic goals.
We are incredibly proud of the partnerships we build which are mutually beneficial, fruitful and often long-lasting. It is difficult to shout about these good news stories: they rarely make the headlines, but they can make a cultural project more secure, more firmly rooted and, with this sense of security, these projects can be even more ambitious. And often that is the best reward of all.