"That is not what it is about at all," said Lord Sainsbury, who on September 18 began the fourth manifestation of the scheme to get classy reproductions of great paintings into schools. To date, 2,250 primary and secondary schools have benefited. "We're interested in making something happen which doesn't already happen - not substituting for what the Government should provide."
Since then commerce has got much closer to sponsoring the arts in education, and on September 30 the Co-operative Wholesale Society will launch a scheme to buy musical instruments for children. Sainsbury's pictures were intended simply to gladden the impressionable eyes of as many schoolchildren as possible, quite separately from any curriculum activities. They could then carry a healthy affection for great art through the rest of their lives.
Incidentally, as an unscripted bonus, the pictures are now being used across the curriculum, for history and geography lessons, as well as to educate the aesthetic sensibilities of children. Inevitably, it has been the arts that have suffered from funding shortages in state schools. The arts are expensive, both in terms of equipment and teacher time. Musical instruments are a luxury, visits to theatres, exhibitions and concerts increasingly rare - unheard of in most rural communities - and specialist teaching too often unaffordable.
Yet while conventional corporate arts sponsorship has been undergoing drastic revision since the recession, business support of arts education has actually been growing.
This is not always a wholly altruistic trend. Marketing directors rather than chairmen's wives are in the driving seat now, and to them the arts are a potential soft sell for products, such as the privatised utilities, which have a high profile at the grassroots but not a particularly cuddly one.
Organisations such as BT see the communities where their customers live as the best target for their sponsorship programmes - and by communities they mean schools.
So it is with the Co-op. For every Pounds 10 spent in a store until February 16 next year, a customer is entitled to a voucher: for 35 vouchers you can get a recorder, and for a lot more a grand piano. It is the parents, mostly, who will be getting the vouchers, but the Co-op's Michelle Vernon says packs on the scheme have been sent to 3,500 schools of all levels.
"We realised that children are missing out - four schools in five say they don't have enough instruments to go round and 12 per cent say the shortfall is 'acute'. We thought this was a better way to help than computers (Asda and Tescos run voucher schemes for school computers) because this could help the smallest children get into music."
The schools will get the musical instruments, but through the schools the Co-op can reach not only parents but their potential future customers - the children.
The National Lottery is now being steered towards young people, and the essential characteristic of lottery grants is that they are paired with private funds. The Government Pairing Scheme matches some arts sponsorship with government funding and is operated by the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts.
"Targeting educational projects which broaden access to the arts is one of the Pairing Scheme's new priorities and this is reflected in our recent change of rules," says Sally Weir, head of the Pairing Scheme. "If a sponsorship meets our criteria of providing exceptional value to the arts and can demonstrate that it will develop a new educational programme, then we can actually make a 100 per cent award, doubling the total value of the sponsorship to both sides."
Few businessmen have been more involved in cultural life than the chairman of the Trustee Savings Bank, Sir Nicholas Goodison, who is also chairman of the National Art Collections Fund and of the Courtauld Institute.
"We believe that business has a role to play in giving young people first-hand experience of cultural life outside the classroom," he said when he launched his Pounds 1 million Artsbound project in June. "We believe we are creating an opportunity to launch young people on a life-long enjoyment of the arts. "
Artsbound has taken 18 months to devise and is certainly a leader in its field. A complex, three-cornered commitment aimed specifically at 11- to 16-year-olds, Artsbound also involves the National Gallery, the Royal National Theatre and the Association of British Orchestras and their education departments.
The first of the three initiatives had already begun last year at the National Gallery with TSB First Visit, which is being repeated this autumn, aimed at school pupils outside London. Parties from as far afield as Shetland and the Channel Islands have been brought, fares paid for both children and accompanying staff, to the National Gallery for guided tours and gallery lectures. They would previously have been sent comprehensive education packs including video introductions to the gallery. More than 5,000 children have visited the National Gallery under the programme so far. Possibly to avoid accusations of metropolitan elitism, but certainly to inject some logistical realism, others are being encouraged to visit collections nearer home with the associated TSB Local Visit scheme.
With TSB First Movement, which began this month, six orchestras - the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, City of Birmingham Symphony, the Halle in Manchester, the London Symphony , the Royal Philharmonic and the Royal Scottish National - are collaborating under the co-ordination of the Association of British Orchestras.
A project pack, this time with a CD, is sent to all schools who apply, and the concerts include a pre-performance talk on the music and a chance to meet the orchestra at a reception afterwards. Many adult concert-goers would gladly pay for such privileges.
TSB First Act will start in September 1997 and is still being put together, but it is being devised by the National Theatre to introduce students to Shakespeare's plays in line with the national curriculum requirements for English and drama.
Again, a pack accompanied by a video will be issued, with the National Theatre touring an interactive promenade production of a Shakespeare play to about 50 secondary schools. Performances will be preceded by workshops.
But inevitably there is a commercial benefit. "What we're after," said Sir Nicholas, "is to create a profile with young people so that they will grow up thinking we are a good and responsible bank with a stake in the community. "
The sponsorship package is the first to be announced by TSB since its merger with Lloyds Bank, which has its own sophisticated arts sponsorship programme, including the Young Musician of the Year competition, the Clothes Show and the Lloyds Bank Film Challenge with Channel Four, all aimed at young people but not specifically at their schools. Most of those projects were steered into being by David Goldesgeyme when he was Lloyds sponsorship manager, before he became LloydsTSB's director of corporate affairs following the merger.
"We certainly do go into schools - the Film Challenge is aimed at 11- to 25-year-olds - and we know that some entrants have used their experiences in A-Level media courses they've done," he says. "But we're not in the business of substituting for public funding. We're aiming at young people, not young pupils." And these young people will need bank accounts ere long, and already be warmly disposed to Lloyds if they have become acquainted through an appealing sponsorship which on the face of it has nothing to do with banking. This is not cynicism, but business.
Making a welcome return to arts sponsorship is the Baring Foundation, the arm of the bank which once had Pounds 14 million a year to spend on community and arts projects. Despite the collapse of the bank in 1995, the foundation has found some investments intact which are producing a more modest Pounds 2.25 million a year, and has launched two new arts sponsorships. One, worth Pounds 100,000 a year to support small events in educational or community settings, and one for Pounds 60,000, called the Knowledge and Skills Exchange Fund, appears to sail closer to the wind of substitution.
Its purpose is to enable people working in the arts to bring their skills and knowledge into schools - but here again grants will not be given for projects that would normally be funded publicly, a tenet of the foundation before and since the Nick Leeson affair, and grants are expressly not to pay salaries. Some business sponsorship reaches deep into school life, however. McDonald's, the fast food chain, this year began to provide a pack for teachers on each of the national curriculum key stages, compiled by teachers in association with Humberside Training and Enterprise Council, and although it is only available on request it is already in 600 schools.
But does it matter if the private sector is providing valuable service to the arts and education? "I don't think one should spend too long worrying about the philosophical whys and wherefores," says Sir Nicholas Goodison. "There is obviously a practical link with the core curriculum in Artsbound, but we are certainly not doing it to substitute for public provision."
The problem is likely to be that the best ideas for supporting the arts in schools might well develop in the private sector and become increasingly valuable parts of arts activities in schools, but sponsorship programmes are finite and the time will inevitably come when the sponsorship has done its missionary work at the grassroots for the sponsoring company. Who will take these increasingly essential programmes up when the sponsors have moved on?