Matt W. Kane

Corporate Cultural Responsibility

Corporate Cultural Responsibility: How Business Can Support Art, Design, and Culture by Michael Bzdak


Four categories: patronage, sponsorship, partnership, and investment

While architecture is one of the most visible manifestations of corporate patronage in the world of design and culture, art collecting became a norm in the 1980s and 1990s. Many collections were created to enhance corporate campuses for employees and visitors; some rivaled museum collections and others enhanced a company’s identity. The most culturally responsible corporations acquired and displayed art as a strategic means to build stronger relationships with their communities.

Defining a role for business in the arts

Robber-baron philanthropy supported a range of civic and cultural efforts, most notably Andrew Carnegie’s generous financing of more than 1,500 public libraries throughout the country, from 1886 to 1917. Douglas Klahr argues that Carnegie actually created a noncommercial brand along with these democratic civic spaces for learning and interaction. However, Carnegie’s generosity came with conditions: in order to apply for a grant, a community had to demonstrate that it could sustain the library’s operation. This usually meant that municipalities had to vote on a tax bond and, for many reasons, women were invited to participate in the vote-many years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920 (Klahr, 2019).

In Philadelphia, the Curtis Publishing Company, known for hiring artists to illustrate the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, also commissioned a new office and printing plant on Independence Square in Philadelphia in 1909. One of the highlights of the building was a mosaic mural in the lobby designed by Maxfield Parrish and executed by Tiffany representing an early effort at integrating art into corporate buildings.

In their effort to revive a dying Colorado mining town, Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke engaged Bayer to help transform Aspen into a cultural tourist destination.

Polaroid Corporation represents yet another example of how photography bridged the world of art and the world of commerce. In fact, one author summarized their efforts as, “one of the stellar examples in American business lore of corporate collaboration between a manufacturer and the consumer of its products” (Minkkinen, 2000). When the company launched its popular instant image camera in 1948 at Jordan Marsh’s department store its target was wealthy amateurs. The company hired Ansel Adams as a consultant and over many decades became more closely associated with the fine arts.

While the Hallmark collection rivals that of many museums, one of its most powerful attributes has been its ability to reach the broader public through numerous exhibitions. In 2006 a significant part of the collection, valued at $65 million, was donated to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (PND by Candid, 2006). Hallmark curator Keith Davis accompanied the collection to the museum, where he continued to expand one of the most important photography troves in the world.

Modernism and Corporate Campus

The second example of CCR comes from Columbus, Indiana where leadership at Cummins Engine embraced the idea that a vital company depends on a healthy community.

In the 1950’s Millers began a crusade to bring modern architecture and design to his community of 43,000, which now has more than 70 Modernist buildings and serves as a significant cultural tourism destination.

In essence, Corning Glass helps establish the city of Corning, New York, as a cultural and educational destination. CMOG gets three-quarters of its funding from the Corning Corporation and is the “centerpiece of the local $140MM annual recreation and tourism industry”.

Cross-fertilization is needed to dispel distrust and to build more understanding. One of theories at Aspen was that some good might be accomplished by bringing together people from these different class groups to discuss things related to our American heritage and to participate in common cultural experiences.

(Denny and Riesman, 1951)

The idea of cross-fertilization was at the core of the Aspen Institute and continues to be a defining theme in its program to this day.

Formalizing and Normalizing Business Patronage of the Arts

Under the leadership of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, New York State signaled the beginning of state support for the arts by creating the New York State Council on the Arts, in 1960. Five years later, the US government established the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and the Humanities (NEH). Some of the arguments for government arts subsidies were based on the economic concept of “merit good,” whereby society deems something so important it is worth paying for on behalf of the public. In other words, the arts produce benefits for society beyond those for which consumers would pay.

Thomas Watson Jr., chairman of IBM’s executive committee, famously confessed to an almost mystical experience on encountering the Olivetti retail store on Fifth Avenue, in New York (Schutte, 1975). Later, he recounted a visit with Adriano Olivetti in Italy that inspired him even more. An IBM colleague in Holland also pointed out Olivetti’s progressive and integrative approach to design, suggesting that IBM was lagging. According to Watson, these events inspired a whole movement within the company to commission major Modernist architects to design “about 150 plants, laboratories, and office buildings” between 1956 and 1971 (Schute, 1975). Whether IBM was feeling pressure from Olivetti’s success or simply emulating the company, its leadership embraced a similar program of integrated design.

IBM is an example of a case where a company’s commitment to the art and culture is not embedded in its core values and is subject to the whims of leadership and changing business climates.

In 1999, the bank celebrated the 40th anniversary of the collection, compromised of more than 20,000 objects housed in more than 350 locations worldwide, by publishing a coffee-table book.

Cultural Responsibility and the Public Good

There is still a great deal of potential in realizing greater alignment with stake. holders through cultural engagement. In the wake of social unrest in 2020, for example, some companies turned to their art collections to produce dialogues around race, discrimination, and social injustice. There are plenty of opportunities for health-care companies to explore collaborations with artists and arts organizations in the area of healing and resilience, particularly in mental health. Companies may also deploy their employees to build capacity in arts organization through pro bono work. Corporate art collections could be shared more broadly with the community and support local education efforts in schools that have incorporated STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) programs into their core curricula. Finally, companies could leverage their internal design departments to support CSR, community development, diversity, and inclusion goals.

Building a Better Case for Support of Culture and the Arts

In the case of the Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, New Jersey, discussed in Chapter 3 and designed by Eero Saarinen, the Tri State chapter of Docomomo led a three-day design charette in collaboration with many other individuals and organizations to inspire and document the many ways the landmark could be reused while preserving the integrity of the building and landscape. Today, the site is a thriving hub of businesses and public resources that returns value to local residents as well as its tenants. The former corporate campus has become a cultural and civic space with a branch of the public library as well as acres of walking paths. What could have been a regrettable outcome for Modernism and the community became a transformative asset. This sort of process could be made part of an agreement when corporate projects are initiated to avoid the eventuality of an abandoned site.

In the post-COVID-19 world, companies may be judged by how much they enhance or improve society or promote and preserve culture. As the next generation of CSR practice matures, the coming years will witness a notable shift in the pursuit of a higher purpose beyond financial gain. This will likely include more engagement in cultural initiatives and inclusive business models.


While capitalism is being reinvented, there is no better time to elevate the arts as a corporate and societal responsibility. Taking all stakeholders seriously is at the heart of CCR, and the potential for collaboration between art and commerce has never been greater. As Charles Handy famously stated, “The purpose of a business, in other words, is not to make a profit, full stop. It is to make a profit in order to enable it to do something more or better.”