“In recent years, artists have more forcefully expressed their discomfort and outrage at the bankrolling of institutions by companies directly involved in climate change, human rights abuses, and other atrocities—motivated, in no small part, by moral and ethical concerns that big businesses are trying to effectively rehabilitate their public images by associating themselves with altruistic things like philanthropy and the arts.”
Matthew Braga is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. A former senior technology reporter for CBC News and editor at Motherboard, he covers technology, science, and culture.

At the Digital Economies Lab workshop in Ottawa earlier this year, the group of assembled artists were asked whether they had ever participated in an event bankrolled by a military defence contractor. To an outsider, the question might sound like a joke. But the reality is that the art world is rife with wealthy corporate donors and philanthropists who make their millions, even billions, from work that many might consider morally or ethically fraught.

The shift to a corporate-sponsored art world has been underway for decades now (a story in The New York Times way back in 1985 looked at the then-emerging trend. But in recent years, artists have more forcefully expressed their discomfort and outrage at the bankrolling of institutions by companies directly involved in climate change, human rights abuses, and other atrocities—motivated, in no small part, by moral and ethical concerns that big businesses are trying to effectively rehabilitate their public images by associating themselves with altruistic things like philanthropy and the arts. The result: protests against the Sackler family, of oxycontin infamy, for gifts made to the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others; protests against a member of the Whitney Museum’s board, for his stake in a manufacturer of tear gas; protests against oil company funding of the Louvre and the Tate; and protests against members of the MoMA PS1’s board for their connections to private prison and security firms.

“There are certainly moral and ethical quandaries to consider here, too—should an artist take money from a brand that’s been known to use child labour, or facilitated genocide in Myanmar?”

At the same time, corporations have begun to directly fund the artists themselves. As Samantha Culp wrote for The Atlantic in 2018, big global brands like Red Bull and Pepsi have stepped into fulfill the roles that wealthy patrons once used to fulfill. Well-known carmakers, shoe brands, soft drink conglomerates, and fashion houses have given artists lucrative money for branded work. For years now, some of the largest tech companies in the world have operated artist residencies. Google, one of the biggest proponents of machine learning, is funding artists to work with the technology. There are certainly moral and ethical quandaries to consider here, too—should an artist take money from a brand that’s been known to use child labour, or facilitated genocide in Myanmar?—but also valid concerns about the kinds of art that can and can’t be made with corporate money, and the kind of risks an artist can take. “It’s true that most branded projects don’t allow artists to approach sensitive topics such as sex, violence, or political critique—or meta-critique of the brand itself,” writes Culp.

There are certainly advantages and benefits to attaching one’s self to brand—financial, certainly, but access to resources, audience, and the heightened profile the relationship may bring. But not everyone can or should have to rely on corporate benevolence to make a living, nor should that be the primary source of income on which art institutions survive. We’re long overdue for a collective reckoning: a realization that artists are as much a part of a healthy society as anyone else, and that supporting their work is an indisputable public good. Some may still choose corporate patronage. But there should be other sustainable models for artists—for all workers, really—to make a comfortable living on their own terms, too.