The Trouble with Corporate Sponsorship

Having chronicled the corrupting influence of corporate donations to environmental groups, I found myself in uncomfortable territory last weekend while helping my husband, videoartist Alberto Roblest, produce “Present Interval / Intervalo del Tiempo,” a temporary public art installation that, for two nights, took over an alleyway in Washington D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Even before the trouble began, I was feeling a little queasy about Alberto’s deal with Best Buy. The electronics retail chain had agreed to loan him video projectors in exchange for sponsorship bragging rights.

It’s not to say that the Fortune 500 company hasn’t been a joiner in corporate America’s efforts to address global warming. Earlier this year, Best Buy supported doomed (and some said dubious) cap-and-trade legislation. It even took on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the climate issue. But there’s no getting around it: The retailer and its competitors are the “pushers” feeding the nation’s carbon-positive/climate-negative shopping “habit.”

The Best Buy deal, however, wasn’t with an environmental group, which seemed to reduce the hypocrisy factor. And Alberto’s installation had a noble aim: to bring museum-quality art to the streets.  It could also be said that borrowing the equipment was a lot better (environmentally speaking) than buying new projectors.

In the bright light of a Monday morning, however, it’s hard to escape the simple truth that this corporate sponsorship deal had many of the same pitfalls of the eco-unsavory kind: Essentially, when a corporation agrees to supply something absolutely crucial to your organization or initiative – whether it’s money or equipment — you quickly find yourself in hyper-polite zone. Any criticism of the corporate benefactor would seem downright rude (not to mention risky). If things go wrong, if the company fails to follow through on its end of the bargain, you have no recourse whatsoever.

Corporate sponsorship deals are sort of like dysfunctional family situations, it seems to me. Just like a relationship between a child and parent, if you know you might get sent to your room, have your favorite toy taken away, or catch a beating, you may not talk back to your mom or dad. And, if you are just the foster kid, a step kid, –…or God forbid! the bastard child of an obscure art form – just think how much more reluctant you may be to upset the parental figure.

That’s how things played out for Alberto and Best Buy. For more than a year after the general manager of a suburban DC Best Buy agreed to provide the equipment, the relationship was all cordial meetings, emails and phone calls. (Family in harmony.) It wasn’t until the night before the opening that we got the first inkling that the guy was about to welch on his promise of two more projectors. (We’d been trying to pick up the equipment for more than a week; every delay accompanied by assurances that the projectors would be available by Friday, if not sooner.) By Friday morning, however, the manager had stopped taking Alberto’s phone calls.  (Strife! dysfunction!)

Only when I got on the phone and threatened to call Best Buy’s corporate offices, did the manager miraculously become available for chat. Not that it mattered much. I was taken aback a retailer like Best Buy would renege on its commitment on the day of the exhibition. We had, after all, come through with our end of the bargain, emblazoning the bright yellow and black logo on our invitation cards and thanking the company in press releases. But the general manager just laughed bitterly and dared me to call, saying his bosses wouldn’t care about his failure to follow through.

Since Alberto had never been in a position to pressure his benefactor for a legally binding letter of commitment, the prospect of calling corporate did not seem like a terribly good use of the daylight left before “dark” when installation was scheduled to debut. Instead, I spent a few frantic hours calling equipment rental places, finally securing two projectors in Rockville, and making it back into the city a few hours before the event was to open.

Alas! It wasn’t a storybook ending (but don’t worry too much …  It all works out in the end.) Alberto had to improvise with smaller projectors, causing us to open late. One project didn’t work at all, leading to another mad dash for equipment the following day. But the show did “go on,” as they say. By Saturday night, our equipment woes were behind us, and things finally fell into a magical place.

In the end, the installation delivered all the light and beauty it had promised, whirring away, outdoors, under a starry, starry sky! Not everyone took the time to stop and enjoy the “interval” Alberto had created just for them but there were also many who did. Many lingered for extended periods, watching and discussing the work and other things with Alberto and each other. Somebody said the video projections that glided across the brick walls reminded him of moving murals. Someone else likened it to “graffiti” – but the “healthy” kind and temporary, of course. Tons of people said they were delighted to accidentally happen upon the projections during a routine trip across the alley connecting two heavily traveled Adams Morgan streets – 18th Street and Columbia Road NW.

In the afterglow of all that love, it’s hard for me to hold too much of a grudge against Best Buy. And, in all fairness to corporate sponsors, we had a few others – the bank that owned the property, a local restaurant and neighborhood groups – that fully followed through as they promised. Even Best Buy had a hand in making the project a success by lending us one projector. And, I do believe the manager made some effort to procure the other two. When that proved too much trouble, however, he decided he could pull out without any repercussions.

That assessment appears to be right, but seems utterly wrong – whether the commitment is a small one to a local artist or a big deal like following through on corporate “greening.”

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About greendistrict

I'm Christine MacDonald, a journalist and the author of the book: "Green, Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone B

Posted on November 8, 2010, in Art, Carbon footprint, Climate Change, Climate Deniers, Corporate Citizenship, Corporate Social Responsiblity, Corporate sponsorship, DC, energy efficiency, Environment, Global Warming, Green Living, greenwash, lifestyle, Local Politics, sustainability, Washington, World. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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