The business of funding the arts

DAYS before the Society for Performing Arts came into being in 1989, Mrs Anna Sohmen was frantically telephoning friends to drum up support for the organisation and explaining what the group was all about - not always successfully.

These days, when the eloquent businesswoman and arts patron mentions the Academy for Performing Arts people are almost immediately eager to lend support.

With corporate support and a string of full-house productions under its belt, Mrs Sohmen said the APA and its fund-raising arm, the SPA, were no longer the ''white elephants of Wan Chai''.

However, there is one tough nut she still has to crack - the intransigence of Government in its refusal to give Hongkong's arts a much bigger share of taxpayer's money.

While leading corporations have become more interested in sponsoring the arts, the wife of the chairman of World-Wide Shipping, Mr Helmut Sohmen, and daughter of the late billionaire, Sir Y. K. Pao, warned against an overseas trend where companies ''shape art''.

''So far, sponsors have been very generous, and it has not happened as yet where they make demands on the production. God forbid one would have to modify a production to suit the tastes of the sponsors. Government money would eliminate that danger and ensure that the arts remained more neutral, so we are still trying to get more money from Government as well,'' she said.

Public funding would give the APA ''freedom to develop'', she said, without the constant threat of a sponsor wanting to commercialise a production.

Mrs Sohmen opened the SPA with the musical Grease, followed by How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, La Boheme, Cosi Fan Tutte and the recent opera, Carmen. Award-winning musical West Side Story is the academy's forthcoming production.

''The APA has four schools under one roof, which is a unique situation in the world. This means our productions are much more cohesive and easier to run,'' she said.

Audience expectations had changed drastically, said Mrs Sohmen, and theatre companies could no longer get away with putting on mediocre productions.

''Audiences are more demanding and sophisticated, so standards have to follow,'' she said.

Mrs Sohmen said she had ''eclectic interests'' in the arts, having studied classical ballet and other forms of dance with doyenne Martha Graham.

She has taken opera courses, sang in her school choir, took part in college theatre and has also dealt in 18th century European paintings.

''These were all extra-curricular activities, as my main area of interest was in social work and psychology at the University of Chicago.'' Although Mrs Sohmen has taught child development at the University of Hongkong and worked with disturbed children, she has retained a long-standing interest in visual arts.

As well as lobbying the Hongkong Government on arts sponsorship, she is also trying to encourage established, traditional Chinese family-run firms to consider putting money into the arts.

''Because of the affluence here, companies are beginning to see how they can use theatrical productions to project their own image. It is much easier now to get sponsorship than eight or 10 years ago.

''They are typically low-profile companies who emphasise quality and are looking for things to put their names to,'' she said.

''But the people who run traditional Chinese firms do not think in terms of advertising and projecting their image. They are established, and people know their names so they don't feel they face the competition that foreign companies coming to Hongkonghave to face. We are trying to get across to them that in sponsoring, not only are they advertising their names but they are also doing something concrete for students.'' On average, an in-house production costs about $250,000, so more than one sponsor is often needed.

Audiences have also changed with young Chinese taking a keen interest in the performing arts.

''I attended something by the Chung Ying Theatre Company recently where the audience was mainly young and Chinese, and the same is the case at the APA productions. That is why we have a good mix of programmes, so we can reach out and touch all parts of the community.'' The society comprises musicians, financial analysts, jewellery designers and fund managers - culture-buffs from all walks of life. Mrs Sohmen said work on forthcoming productions was going ahead ''non-stop''.

Later this year she will help organise a fund-raising karaoke evening with a live orchestra that will involve prominent members of the community singing, conducting or playing in the orchestra.