A Veteran Auction-House Executive Is Launching a Firm to Serve as a Matchmaker Between Corporations and Museums Looking for Sponsorship

It's not an easy time for either museums or corporations. But Joe Dunning sees an opportunity.

Joe Dunning, founder of Dunning & Partners

Quick—what was your favorite museum exhibition last year? Now, can you remember who sponsored it?

This is a simple but telling question that auction-house veteran Joe Dunning likes to pose to illustrate the limitations of corporate sponsorship. “Most people can’t remember,” he told Artnet News. “And sometimes the sponsors themselves can’t remember.”

Enter: Dunning’s new venture Dunning & Partners, a firm that strives to “make a business’s support of a particular exhibition stand out above all the others.” The initiative comes at a difficult moment for museum sponsorship: activists and members of the public no longer take kindly to seeing companies like BP and other oil and defense firms underwriting exhibitions. At the same time, museums—facing dwindling budgets and steep drops in revenue—need money more than ever. 

“I’m essentially brokering the partnerships by working with the arts organizations to identify a pressing need,” Dunning said. “It’s about matching the right business and source of funds with the right project.” He expects that projects will be initiated by both corporations looking for a way to boost their image and institutions looking for support. 

Dunning left Sotheby’s, where he worked in business development, when his contract was up in March (a time when many executives were departing following the company’s purchase by Patrick Drahi and cutbacks related to the shutdown). After a stint at Christie’s, he had joined the advisory firm Art Agency, Partners just days before it was acquired by Sotheby’s in early 2016. At the auction house, he liaised with museums on the annual Sotheby’s Prize for pioneering exhibitions and realized there were unexplored opportunities for collaboration between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

The current sponsorship model, he said, “isn’t particularly tailored” and usually involves sticking the company’s name in prominent spots and hosting a cocktail party for top clients. His approach, on the other hand, might involve connecting museums with businesses that can offer unique insight and expertise on recovering from the shutdown or help expand access to the arts. 

Rather than work on commission, Dunning said, “the businesses I work with pay me for my time”; fees will be determined on a case by case basis and vary based on the size of the job. 

Dunning sees this moment—when companies are facing growing pressure to put people and values before profits—as an opportunity for museum sponsorship. He cites recent data gathered by Arts Council England showing that 44 percent of the museum-going audience are Millennials and Gen Z (ages 18 to 34)—the same audience that spends money on brands that reflect their values and support causes they care about, including environmental sustainability, social justice, equality, and diversity.

“I am arguing that companies should stop thinking of supporting the arts as a nice-to-have and start thinking about it as part of their recovery plan and growth strategy,” Dunning said. “Businesses need to re-establish their relationship with their customers in an authentic and emotional way, and the way to do this is by demonstrating their values and supporting something they care about.”

Though Dunning had been thinking about the venture for the better part a year, he was forced to reconsider whether it was still a good idea as museums and companies around the globe were closing their doors due to the public-health situation. “I wanted to be sure that my mission was, first of all, still relevant,” he said.

He ultimately determined that the need to support arts organizations “remains more pressing than ever because the threat is more grave” and that “businesses are going to have to do everything they can to chart a path to recovery that takes account of how their customers have changed.” Ever the salesman, he added, “for the right businesses, this could hasten their recovery.”

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