Wells Fargo knows the value of supporting the arts

Wells Fargo has turned out to be the most generous corporate sponsor some of Charlotte's cultural groups have ever had.

When Wells won control of Wachovia in autumn 2008, the city worried whether the big newcomer would value Charlotte's people and institutions. Yet the San Francisco-based bank has treated some arts organizations to a level of financial support they never experienced from Charlotte businesses. A few examples:

Wells will give Opera Carolina a two-year total of $250,000 to become the chief sponsor of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 opera seasons. This is "by far the largest sponsorship we have had from a corporate donor," says James Meena, Opera Carolina's general director.

Wells gave $100,000 to N.C. Dance Theatre for last winter's "Nutcracker." The donation was "the single largest corporate sponsorship for a performance in the company's history," says Doug Singleton, NCDT's executive director.

The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art received $175,000 to support "Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology," the exhibition whose many-colored sculptures spill out across The Green opposite the museum.

Because the Bechtler is less than 2 years old, its past offers no comparisons. President John Boyer looks instead to the future. Wells Fargo's grants to the museum and other groups, he says, make him "hope this is an indication that they see quality here, and they're investing in the long term - as any financial institution would.

"When the economy does stabilize, it's not unreasonable to expect that their support could become even stronger."

Commitment to Charlotte

Wells Fargo announced Friday that it will sponsor an all-day showcase of Charlotte's cultural groups Oct. 29. The Wells Fargo Community Celebration will mark the completion of the three-year changeover that culminates in the retirement of the Wachovia name.

"Charlotte had a lot of fear and concern about what Wells Fargo would mean when it came in," says Kendall Alley, the bank's president for the Charlotte region.

Even though the bank's headquarters is in San Francisco, the city with the most employees - about 20,000 - is Charlotte, Alley says. By supporting cultural groups and other philanthropic causes, he says, "we've tried our best to demonstrate our commitment to the community."

Wells introduced itself to Charlotte's nonprofits with a bang in December 2009, about a year after taking over Wachovia.

The bank invited leaders of cultural and social-service groups to breakfast under the guise of thanking them for their service to the community. When they arrived, Wells Fargo served up bacon, grits and more than $6 million in grants - most of which came as a surprise. The bank gave $100,000 each to the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte Symphony and five other groups. It gave $350,000 to the Arts & Science Council's 2010 campaign.

Coming as the recession made ticket buyers and donors hold onto their money, Wells' unexpected donation helped NCDT fill some of the gap, Singleton says. For last winter's "Nutcracker," Wells not only supplied $100,000 as the sponsor, but it made an additional grant to help the dance theater pay the Charlotte Symphony.

Before Wells came along, Singleton says, "we had support from Wachovia - but not anywhere near this level."

Boosting business

As a business allying itself with cultural groups, Wells Fargo has company, of course. Duke Energy recently announced a second two-year commitment as the main sponsor of Blumenthal Performing Arts' Broadway Lights series. Bank of America loaned art from its collection last year for the first exhibition at the new Mint Museum Uptown, and it's a past sponsor of the Charlotte Symphony's Classics series - a role Wells is playing now.

Though Wells is relatively open about the amounts of money involved, Charlotte businesses have typically declined to be specific. That works against broad comparisons. But sometimes the two banks have lined up equally. When the Arts & Science Council raised $1 million this year for arts programs at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Wells and Bank of America pledged $200,000 each; in the Cultural Facilities Campaign that ended last year, each bank gave $15 million. Duke gave smaller amounts to each drive.

All this isn't just philanthropy, though.

It's also a business strategy, says Kevin Toomb, a professor at UNC Charlotte's Belk College of Business.

Toomb was a marketing executive with First Charter Bank when it - and later, Fifth Third Bank, which bought it - sponsored the Charlotte Symphony's annual "Celebrate America" Summer Pops concert. Each July, he recalls, the bank attached its name to an evening when thousands of people relaxed outdoors, enjoyed rousing patriotic music and waved the U.S. flag.

"It helped differentiate us," Toomb says. Businesses reach out to potential customers by linking up with "things your audience is in favor of," he explains. Sporting events may reach some people; cultural events, others.

Strong bank, strong city

Wells was the driving force behind a concert last month by the Charlotte Symphony and Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday. Besides helping cover the orchestra's costs, the bank set up the concert as a benefit for the United Negro College Fund. So the one event aided both organizations.

"It's like using $1 to create $3 worth of impact," says Jonathan Martin, the orchestra's executive director.

Wells puts education and community development alongside culture as causes it supports, says Jay Everette, the bank's community affairs manager. Its sponsorship dollars sometimes serve them simultaneously. It gave $75,000 to the Levine Museum of the New South to create educational materials tying the museum's "Courage" exhibition about desegregation to the CMS curriculum. It paid for students from disadvantaged schools to see NCDT's "Nutcracker."

"Some people would look at it and just see dollars," Everette says. "But we look at it more holistically."

All of this comes back around to benefit the bank, Alley says.

"We don't believe you can have a strong bank in a weak community," Alley says. It behooves Wells to invest in the cities where it does business.

"We have strong banks, we have strong communities, we continue to get strong," Alley says. "And it's very nice for everyone."

Related stories from Charlotte Observer