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Getting Over It: A Morality Tale

It’s no longer news that Altria, and the $7 million it lavishes each year on the arts, is leaving New York. The move is the final step in chief executive Louis Camilleri’s 2005 plan to beef up the corporate giant’s stock price by reorganizing its operations. Most of Altria’s companies are relocating to Richmond, Virginia, while its tobacco business, Philip Morris International, will be split off and headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, where it will be free “to pursue emerging cigarette markets without being hindered by the regulatory and legal problems facing its business in the United States,” according to an October 8, 2007, New York Times story.

The Times article doesn’t explain exactly why Philip Morris believes it needs to leave the country, especially in light of the tobacco industry’s recent successes in beating the government’s ability to control it. The American Heart Association reports on its website that after a June 2000 Supreme Court ruling, “all FDA tobacco regulations were dropped, including the federal minimum age requirement for tobacco products (18 years old)... With the tobacco industry’s defeat of the FDA regulations, the federal government currently preserves a minimal collection of federal regulations that do little to protect U.S. consumers from the dangers of tobacco.”

In the meantime, Philip Morris USA has been vocally supportive of two new bills, HR-1108 and S 625, which would reinvest the FDA with regulatory authority over tobacco, including prohibitions on availability to minors and uniform standards for ingredient disclosure. In his statement of support for HR-1108, submitted to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Health, Mike Szymanczyk, the CEO of Philip Morris USA, nevertheless underscores those areas untouched by the legislation, perhaps divulging the corporation’s true priorities: “Importantly, tobacco products will not be regulated as a drug or device,” and “the bill… also makes clear that FDA does not have the authority to regulate tobacco growers. FDA will not be on the farm.”

To recap: after a successful campaign by the tobacco lobby to strip the FDA of its authority over the cigarette business, Philip Morris USA now supports the imposition of new rules while its parent company decamps to Switzerland “to pursue emerging cigarette markets” free of that regulatory oversight. 

This thicket of public relations maneuvering, legislative manipulation and financial strategizing, if seen plainly, would undoubtedly appear as nothing more than a gratuitous exercise in naked greed, with dire public health consequences. To quote again from the American Heart Association, “Nearly 438,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related disease...But tobacco is one of the least-regulated consumer products in the marketplace. The tobacco industry’s political and economic influence has allowed tobacco products to be exempted from virtually every consumer health and safety law enacted by Congress.”

On the same day that the Times article was published, Brian Lehrer conducted an interview on WNYC with its writer, Andrew Martin, and Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In her defense of corporate funding in general and Altria in particular, Hopkins displayed a stunning, perhaps willful, naïveté. Chiding Lehrer for being “a little tough on the company [Altria] in the sense that there are so many corporations that are involved in products that one can question… and if we pulled all of them out of the corporate/philanthropic ratio we would probably have none of them supporting the arts or anything else.” An incredulous-sounding Lehrer asked if she really meant to “excuse the tobacco companies that much by lumping them in with everything else?” Hopkins responded that she didn’t “want to even take the question on,” adding that “any of these companies could have just plowed their profits back into their own pockets… if you’re going to make profit, however you make it, using a big portion of it for philanthropic purposes, in my book, is a very good thing.”

In a 1994 story published in The Art Newspaper titled “Philip Morris: Will the Tobacco Firm’s Art Support Outlive Its Critics?” David D’Arcy writes that the company has always maintained it doesn’t make contributions to sell products. “Critics argue, however, that the company is buying legitimacy with that support, a legitimacy that Philip Morris needs desperately given the overwhelming evidence linking its most profitable product, cigarettes, with lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments.”

He adds that “Lawrence White, a lawyer who has written extensively about the tobacco business, calls Philip Morris’s philanthropy ‘image enhancement’ or ‘innocence by association.’”This philanthropy, the article also discloses, amounts to one percent of the company’s pretax profits—hardly the “big portion” that Hopkins defends.

Another article in the same issue of The Art Newspaper, “Corporations Favor Political Correctness” by Jason Edward Kaufman, reports that corporate arts sponsorship in the United States “is increasingly associated with marketing concerns rather than disinterested corporate philanthropy… A 1993 survey found that 62% of businesses would like a greater return on their arts investments, and many desire more visibility than arts organizations are willing to provide.” That was fourteen years ago, and the rogues’ gallery of corporate infomercials masquerading as museum exhibitions, a practice most flagrantly exploited by the Guggenheim, has only increased.

In his Times article, Andrew Martin writes, “At first, some arts groups hesitated to take funds from a tobacco company. But most of them got over it…” As this Faustian moment reaches its inevitable conclusion, it’s unavoidable to reflect on the deplorable state of arts funding in this country, a manifestation not only of governmental philistinism but also of a lack of imagination on the part of arts professionals. In yet another story from The Art Newspaper, “Who Makes Art Happen?” from 1997, Mary Rozell-Hopkins describes the financing that went into Documenta X: forty percent came from city, state and federal funds, while more than half was raised “from admission tickets and licensing and merchandising revenues… private contributions were limited to 6% in order to ensure that the creative content of the event would be free from outside influence.”

Major corporate contributions were more in the form of in-kind donations: the German railroad network, Deutsche Bahn AG, offered special fares to Kassel, where the event was held, and it televised reports from Documenta on large screens in its passenger stations. Sony supplied video artists with materials for their works, Volkswagen provided transportation for artists and the disabled, IBM Germany and SBK Software supported technology for administrative offices as well as works of art, and an advertising company volunteered billboard space to publicize the event. These preparations demonstrate a system of financial levers, underwritten by community support, that were designed above all to keep the arts organization in charge of its fate.

A few minutes after her defense of corporate largesse on Brian Lehrer’s show, Hopkins was questioned by a caller named Derek from Manhattan, asking if she has “also taken money from Nicky Barnes and John Gotti, other notorious drug dealers besides the cigarette companies?” Barely missing a beat, Hopkins responded, “No, we have not, and have had no contact with them,” into which Lehrer interjected, “But you understand the sentiment” and pointedly asked her if she ever felt any ambivalence about taking money from Altria. Hopkins ducked the question: “I would say that we have been very pleased that Altria has been a corporate supporter of the Next Wave festival and probably just leave it there.”

Some haven’t left it there. In a follow-up Art Newspaper article a couple of years after his 1994 Philip Morris piece, David D’Arcy discusses a protest from “the American Heart Association and other lobby groups” that led the San Diego Museum of Art to turn down a donation from Philip Morris that would have supported an exhibition by the sculptor Deborah Butterworth. He quotes the director of San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Art, Arthur Ollman, who neatly summed up the local sentiment: “You just don’t cooperate with death dealing. If there’s no other way in a whole community to support a project, then I think you’ve got to look for a different project. There is such a thing as money that is too loaded, too tainted to touch.”


Thomas Micchelli


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2007

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