Sponsorship and American Heritage at the National Gallery of Art

“Sponsorship and American Heritage at the National Gallery of Art,” by first year MA student Victoria Proctor.

Two weeks ago, for Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course, students were assigned a research project to investigate the corporate sponsorship of a temporary museum exhibition, and to consider the relationship between the mission or values of a business and the programming it subsidizes. Inspired by the theme of institutional critique found in several of the course readings, I decided to work on the recent exhibition Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art (April 3-July 24, 2016).  Held in honor of the institution’s 75th anniversary, the exhibition’s primary sponsor was the Altria Group. This tobacco conglomerate, which (according to the NGA website) funded twelve exhibits prior to this event, claims to be “especially dedicated to showcasing the work of American artists.” With this goal in mind, Altria maintains that it donated $3.2 million to the realm of American “Arts & Culture” in 2016, as a substantial part of its “Community Investment” campaign.

Given that the exhibition sought to highlight several American “masters,” the reason why Altria would choose to sponsor this specific event is fairly evident. However, upon further inspection of the company’s website and other related materials, I uncovered deeper thematic connections between the exhibit and the corporate “giver.”  Altria’s corporate identity, as described in its online portal, is constructed around its “American heritage,” including “some of the most enduring names in American business” and offering Americans “thousands of manufacturing jobs…for almost a century.” In addition, the primary product that this corporation markets is tobacco (accounting for “more than half of cigarettes sold in the United States”), a crop that has been fundamental to American social and economic life since the colonial era. Indeed, Altria situates its own historical roots in the business ventures of infamous nineteenth-century innovators such as George Weyman and John Middleton, both of whom revolutionized the tobacco industry and inadvertently began an empire.

Similarly, Three Centuries of American Prints highlights, as the title suggests, a series of iconic American works from 1710 to 2010, ultimately establishing a historical narrative of artistic and cultural progress. The viewer of this exhibit was exposed to some of the most quintessential scenes from American history, such as Paul Revere’s rendition of the Boston Massacre (1770). Meanwhile, other  images illustrated technological and engineering achievements, such as Frances Palmer’s A Midnight Race on the Mississippi (1860), which depicts a steamship, and John Marin’s Woolworth Building No. 1 (1913), an ode to the skyscraper.  Viewers were thus encouraged to translate the pride they experienced in witnessing American innovation—both scientific and artistic—into appreciation for the company that made this show possible.  In turn, by openly associating itself with this exhibit, Altria underscored the fundamentally American identity that it has constructed and maintained over the past 180 years. This is, undoubtedly, a clever act on the part of executives at Altria to bring positive attention to their business, especially in a cultural environment where smoking is acknowledged by public health experts to be harmful to individual consumers and to society at large.

The conglomerate’s decision to maintain (and perhaps improve) their corporate image through arts funding is ironic considering the contentious history of one of Altria’s primary subsidiaries, Philip Morris USA.  As brilliantly articulated by Hans Haacke’s sculpture Helmsboro Country (1990), Philip Morris made a substantial contribution to the foundation of conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1988—at an amount estimated by some news outlets to be $200,000. The work, a giant replica of a cigarette carton, draws attention to this reality through Helms’s portrait in the central medallion, as well as the notation “Philip Morris Funds Jesse Helms” on each five-foot long cigarette. Helms, widely remembered for his stance against federal funding for AIDS treatment during the 1980s crisis, was also actively engaged in a campaign against federal funding for individual artists on the basis of their purported obscenity. In 1989, Helms, backed by 100 of his Congressional colleagues, rallied against the National Endowment for the Art’s sponsorship of “The Perfect Moment.” An exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs scheduled to be held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, “The Perfect Moment” included works on “homosexual themes” that Helms and other opponents deemed taboo. At that time, many figures in the political establishment, including Helms, inaccurately characterized homosexuality to be a “threat to the public health,” given its arbitrary association with AIDs (hence, the original classification of the disease as GRID, Gay-related immune deficiency). As Haacke’s Helmsboro makes clear, Philip Morris’s financial contributions to the Jesse Helms Citizenship Center not only supported Helms’s censorship campaign, but also assisted in the construction of false narratives about homosexuality (as inherently “diseased”). The company thereby created a distraction from its own negative impact on public health as a large manufacturer of carcinogenic products.

This sordid episode in the history of Philip Morris conflicts with the supposed concern for “diverse communities” that Altria currently expresses on its online platform. Therefore, one must wonder whether, by using the funding of exhibitions as a public-relations strategy, Altria hopes to distract the public of today from Philip Morris’s substantial role in Helms’s discriminatory political activities of the 1980s and 90s. At the very least, we might note that Altria’s sponsorship of Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art does not match the grand vision of “diversity” it claims to uphold. The exhibition largely adhered to a canonical view of American art history, thus doing little to combat the general exclusion of certain groups—including women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community—from museum spaces.  In this view, what type of narrative about American art (and American culture more generally) is this syndicate attempting to construct through its endowments?


Hans Haacke, Helmsboro Country, 1990

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