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Museum Ditches Philip Morris as Sponsor

Tobacco: Move a sign of growing industry isolation. San Diego exhibit is set during GOP convention.

May 01, 1996|MYRON LEVIN and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — In a victory for tobacco foes and a sign of the industry's growing isolation from the corporate mainstream, the San Diego Museum of Art has canceled Philip Morris' sponsorship of a major exhibition during the Republican National Convention this summer.

Philip Morris was to sponsor a show by Montana artist Deborah Butterfield, whose life-size sculptures of wild horses evoke the imagery of its flagship Marlboro brand, the world's most popular cigarette. As part of the sponsorship arrangement, Philip Morris was expected to fete Republican heavy-hitters at museum receptions, as it has done when sponsoring exhibits in the past.

Philip Morris spokeswoman Darienne Dennis confirmed Tuesday that the museum's board elected to cancel the sponsorship arrangement. "They have changed their course and decided not to go forward," said Dennis, adding that the episode "has not been helpful . . . to the museum, to the residents of San Diego and certainly not to Philip Morris."

Philip Morris is one of the nations' leading corporate supporters of the arts, and the San Diego institution's decision could have far-reaching effects if other museums were to follow suit.

It is the second snub in the last month for the world's largest cigarette maker, which is expected to be a key presence at the GOP convention here in August. Bowing to protests from tobacco critics, the Del Mar Fair Board last month canceled a lucrative contract with Philip Morris that would have allowed the firm to promote its Marlboros at the fair this summer, including on its "Fiesta Latino Day."

Anti-smoking groups portray tobacco as an outlaw industry whose lavish gifts to the arts and entertainment are intended to buy respectability and community silence about the toll from smoking, which health authorities say causes more than 400,000 premature deaths annually in the U.S. But rarely have arts institutions rejected tobacco money.

During the last two decades, Philip Morris has underwritten six major shows at the San Diego museum, and Dennis said the company looks "forward to considering their next sponsorship request."

Museum Director Steven L. Brezzo expressed disappointment that tobacco critics had not been "more understanding of the goals of the museum." Asked if the museum and cigarette maker will work together in the future, Brezzo said, "Based on the current level of hostility [toward tobacco] in the community, we don't know."

Debra Kelley, vice president of the American Lung Assn. for San Diego and Imperial counties, which has criticized the museum for taking Philip Morris money, said she was delighted by the decision.

The Butterfield exhibit will still be staged in July and August, museum officials said.

Butterfield, a San Diego native, told The Times in a recent interview that she was eager to show her work in her hometown but disturbed at the involvement of Philip Morris.

She said her father died at age 63 from heart disease caused by his smoking habit. She said she asked museum officials if they could find another sponsor, but they said they couldn't. "I really have to lay down with the devil to do this but . . . you know, you make choices," Butterfield said.

Reached by telephone Tuesday, Butterfield said she wasn't aware that Philip Morris' sponsorship had been canceled.

Museum and Philip Morris officials declined to say how much the company would have paid to mount the exhibition. A major exhibition can be an expensive undertaking, with costs for shipping, insurance, security and publicity.

Philip Morris last year sponsored two exhibits at the museum to coincide with the America's Cup yacht race, in which the firm sponsored the Australian boat. The tobacco giant underwrote a show of the political art of Pat Oliphant, and its Kraft foods subsidiary sponsored an Australian photographic exhibit. In addition, Kraft made a large donation to the koala area at the San Diego Zoo, which along with the art museum is in Balboa Park.

Over the years, Philip Morris has won substantial goodwill in the art world as a leading supporter of museums, dance and theater troupes and minority arts organizations. The company has been known not only for its multimillion-dollar gifts, but also its willingness to support artistic innovation--without any obvious strings attached.

The company therefore raised eyebrows in 1994 when it threatened to pull its corporate headquarters out of New York--and its support for local arts institutions--if the city adopted a stringent restaurant smoking ordinance. Representatives of arts groups were quickly in touch with City Council members in an unsuccessful campaign to derail the new law.

Another episode in the fall suggested that ties between tobacco and the arts may be starting to fray.

In a protest over Philip Morris' sponsorship in November, artist Adrian Piper withdrew her work from an exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, saying she would be glad to substitute snapshots of her parents shortly before their deaths from smoking-related ailments.

Artist Hans Haacke also prevailed on the museum to post an anti-tobacco statement along with his work. Ten other artists in the show signed a petition supporting Haacke.

Philip Morris is one of the corporate sponsors of the GOP convention and has donated an undisclosed amount to the San Diego Host Committee, the fund-raising and organizing arm of the convention.

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