Philanthropy and the State in France

Corporate patronage for the arts in France in the 1980s and 1990s : a matter of the State

Editors’ Note: Closing HistPhil‘s forum on Philanthropy and the State in France, Sabine Rozier underscores the central role played by the French State in encouraging philanthropy in France. More specifically, Rozier argues that the “French philanthropic renewal in the 1980s and 1990s” was less “the expression of the awakening of a ‘civil society’ that would have been constrained for too long by a supposedly omnipotent State,” but rather, “the product of the efforts made by the State administration to encourage the subsidiary financing, through private initiative, of public institutions.”

How does one explain why corporate patronage for the arts played such an active role in the renewal of French philanthropy in the 1980s and 1990s, whereas in other countries and at exactly the same moment, it was individual donors who were stimulating philanthropy and through other causes (such as religious, educational or health priorities)?

During these two decades in France, there are three characteristics that differentiate such patronage – the word is used (to refer to this phenomenon) instead of “philanthropy” — from the more traditional forms of philanthropy that prevailed in other European countries. First of all, it is led by large companies with close ties to the French public authorities, not by wealthy individuals.

The foundations created for this purpose are those of recently privatized companies, working mainly for public clients or operating in sectors that are closely regulated or controlled by the State. Secondly, the multifaceted support (be it financial, material or human) provided by these foundations does not benefit social causes, which are much sought after by individual philanthropists, but rather artistic and cultural projects. Finally, instead of benefiting artists, associations or cultural project holders without any money, this aid benefits renowned artistic and cultural institutions – those established by the French public authorities, in particular national cultural institutions under the control of the Ministry of Culture. Social science research on the renewal of patronage in France is scarce. If the inclusion of “culture” on the public authorities’ agenda in the 1960s has been well documented and the institutionalization of public cultural action carefully scrutinized, however the enrollment of large French companies by the public cultural administration – throughout the 1960s and 1980s – has attracted much less attention from researchers. In the light of some practices observed in the United States, the renewal of private “patronage” has often been interpreted as a threat to artistic autonomy. But in doing so, this approach tends to overlook one essential thing: in France, donations – mainly from companies or individuals who have made a fortune in business – have not directly benefited artistic stakeholders looking for funds, but rather a highly interventionist State. This paper will shed new light on this conundrum, arguing that the type of philanthropy that emerged in the 1980s-1990s in France is less akin to the free commitment of donors to causes that matter deeply to them than to the subsidiary funding by company-sponsored foundations of projects led by national public cultural institutions.

This research is based on the exploration of some 100 archival boxes from the Ministry of Culture and on the results of a survey conducted in the 1990s on the mobilization of the key stakeholders involved in this unprecedented alliance between the managers of large companies and public cultural actors. It is based on the idea that, contrary to a fairly widespread neo-Tocquevillian view, philanthropy is not so much the expression of the free commitment of “civil society” in supporting causes of general interest as the product of legal and fiscal facilities set up by the State to encourage private initiative to get involved in causes deemed to be in the general interest. From this point of view, philanthropy must be considered as much a private matter as a matter of State.

The paper shows, in the first place, that the priority support of large corporate donors to “culture” rather than to other causes generally valued by donors owes much to the commitment of Jacques Rigaud, a man at the crossroads between bureaucracy/civil service, politics and culture. As a former senior civil servant who moved to the private sector, he has worked hard to convince economic and cultural actors, at the head of his association (Admical), to overcome their mutual prejudice and to join forces around common projects. By shaping a definition of patronage – an enlightened support for the arts – in line with his current views and concerns, he has managed to attract corporate subsidies into the artistic and cultural world. In doing so, he has indirectly – and unknowingly – encouraged those in charge of public cultural institutions, then in search of new funding, to seek partnership with companies likely to be involved in the implementation of public cultural projects. The Ministry of Culture, led by a former actor-cum-director (Jack Lang) who himself had resorted to sponsorship to fund his artistic activities, became, in the 1980s, one of the staunchest supporters of private sponsorship, constantly interceding with other administrations for the development of a legal and fiscal framework more favourable to donors.

First, in the 1980s and 1990s, the major administrations – namely the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Economy and Finance – viewed the activity of company-sponsored foundations as an attempt at revenue evasion or as a threat to traditional foundations officially recognized as serving the public interest. That is the reason why they hindered the efforts of cultural administration officials in the regulatory and fiscal field. But the mobilization, within this very administration, of managers located at the interface of the economic, bureaucratic and cultural worlds, who managed to convince their stakeholders of their mutual interest in cooperating, enabled the institutions (museums, concert halls, historic monuments) placed under the supervision of this ministry to gain support from a growing number of corporate foundations. Thus, it is among companies controlled by the State authorities or located in its immediate circle that the most loyal patrons of national cultural institutions have been recruited. Patronage, in fact, has not simply been a means for their management teams to express their loyalty to the State and to win it over. It has also offered interesting compensation to managers seeking recognition, happy to see their contribution to the general interest honoured through tributes or symbolic state distinctions. Then, as a result of the gradual conversion of bureaucratic elites to public management principles in the 1990s and 2000s, the use of extra-budgetary revenues (such as those from patronage) by national cultural institutions became a guarantee of “good” public management. The Finance and Interior Administrations therefore came to support the idea of creating a more donor-friendly legal and fiscal framework, in particular by offering companies a legal instrument (the “corporate foundation”) better adapted to their patronage activities (in 1990) and by granting sponsors (with the Aillagon Act of 2003) much more substantial tax benefits than before. The legitimization of patronage, combined with the decline of public cultural action, has subsequently encouraged companies to explore other fields of action and broaden the scope of their philanthropic activities. Initially associated with the world of art and culture, philanthropy has since diversified considerably and now embraces a wide variety of causes.

The French philanthropic renewal in the 1980s and 1990s thus appears to be the product of an implicit compromise between a dominated state administration seeking additional funding and private actors seeking symbolically profitable investments. Far from being the expression of the awakening of a “civil society” that would have been constrained for too long by a supposedly omnipotent State, “French-style” patronage appears rather as the product of the efforts made by the State administration to encourage the subsidiary financing, through private initiative, of public institutions.

-Sabine Rozier

Sabine Rozier is an Associate Professor in political science at the University of Paris-Dauphine – PSL and conducts research at the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Sciences Sociales (IRISSO). She works in particular on philanthropy in the arts and culture as well as in the educational field.


« Le mécénat culturel d’entreprise dans la France des années 1980-1990 : une affaire d’État », in N. Duvoux (ed.) « Philanthropies et prestige d’Etat en France XIXe-XXe siècles, Genèses. Sciences sociales et histoire, 2017/4 (n° 109), p. 80-99.

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