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Stina Lindholm explains that collaboration with businesses need to go beyond sponsorship

4 min read

When I started as chief financial officer of Umeå ‘Capital of culture year’ 2014 the management team had a discussion about sponsorship. We knew we wanted to do it differently – in a new way.

Culture brings more than just marketing opportunities for companies, it brings a platform for creative thinking, new ideas and opportunities – and it brings innovation. But how could we prove this? How could we show the regional businesses that culture is more than just a cost and way more than an opportunity to have a logo on an event programme?

One of my first business meetings was with a big industrial company in 2011. I prepared well to cover how culture is more than paintings and showing the bigger picture, and also how this specific company could benefit from co-operation with the cultural sector.

I met a group of men dressed in work overalls who looked at me sceptically. I had deliberately chosen jeans and instead of the skirt and jacket I normally wear and realised that I am significantly different regardless of what I wear. I feel young, female, overdressed, and out of place. In comes a man of about 60, the manager, who takes my hand and says, “Welcome. Just so you know, we do not really like culture here.”

I had a long way to go if I wanted to convince him that culture could really be beneficial for them. The meeting went well in general, taking the tough start into account, and we actually found a couple of smaller projects within the ‘Capital of culture year’ for them to co-operate in.

A lot of meetings start out very similarly. It takes time and communication for companies to realise that there might be business advantages of cultural co-operations. It also takes time for the cultural sector to understand how it could even be possible to work with profit driven businesses.

The easy way is to do what everyone expects and sell ads. “If you support us with money we will show your logo in XX places.” Traditional sponsoring.

Despite our best intentions the administration behind the ‘Capital of Culture year’ did hire a traditional sponsoring agency to minimize risk. They generated absolutely nothing – not a penny. The program was put together and owned by different cultural institutions and NGO’s and it wasn’t possible to sell in the traditional sense. However, the qualitative co-operations that we have been working with are calculated to a value of 40 million Swedish crowns in private funds, and the number will be even higher when everything is calculated in 2015.

But there are no shortcuts to making these co-operations work. The business in the example above invested in smaller activities where their employees’ children attended creating a pride for the company in the workforce. Another industry saw how the arts could attract a more diverse range of employees than just men by showing their machines in an artistic dance show. They wanted people to see that the industry was not dirty, physically tough, and only for men. A third company arranged a conference in Umeå where the main theme was culture driven growth. They used our help to plan the content of the conference. The aim was to open the attendants up for new ideas and ways of thinking.

It is important to argue for culture and art as something more than entertainment, how many businesses see it. Culture makes people grow or leads to “the betterment or refinement of individuals,” as Wikipedia would put it. We wanted to use the capital of culture year to change the way the cultural sector and businesses cooperated. It hasn’t succeeded entirely, but at least, I believe that we have started a revolutionary way of thinking when it comes to culture and business.