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The Ask: Arts funding

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Will Gompertz | 12:40 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010

I bought two copies of Sam Lipsyte's new novel The Ask on Saturday after reading some good reviews (in the Guardian, the Times and the New York Times).

Sam Lipsyte

The only thing I usually buy in pairs is jeans when, on rare and thrilling occasion, I find some that fit - or when the supermarket is pushing through a two-for-one promotion on electric-toothbrush heads.

Books are normally a single-unit purchase. But in this instance, I bought one copy for me and one for Jeremy Hunt, the recently-installed secretary of state for culture.

It is rammed with ideas, comment and stories all written in the sort of ultra-contemporary prose that makes it a certainty for future academic study and creative-writing courses where it will be appropriated and then deconstructed by earnest intellectuals. I hope Mr Hunt enjoys it. I did, but that's not why I got him the book.

The setting is a New York university's fund-raising department where Milo Burke works as an ineffective development executive - development is the term used in not-for-profit organisations for raising money from rich individuals.

The book's title is American fund-raiser-speak for the quarry: the banker, the rich widow, the beneficiary of a will or the grateful alumnus. If "the ask" is successful and the wealthy person pays for a new computer room or an outreach programme, he or she becomes "the give".

The book begins with prostitution as metaphor - in that trade, as in "the ask", both parties play a role. The development officer fawns over, flatters and subjugates himself to potential donor to such an extent that self-respect is jettisoned as excess baggage. Meanwhile the ask basks.

Mr Hunt might be interested in The Ask because he has said he wants to import American-style philanthropy to help mitigate against autumn's government cuts in what he describes as "a horrible period for arts and cultural funding".

The vast majority of people to whom I have spoken about importing the American philanthropic model feel that it's a non-starter. It is not, they say, that we're above grovelling to a stubbly oligarch or a conceited hedge-fund guy: we can do that with the same fraudulent gusto as Milo Burke. It is, they tell me, overt or apparent "tackiness" that we baulk at, as David Puttnam told me last week on the News at Ten.

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Mind you, everybody also said that philanthropy is a good thing and welcomed a governmental initiative to encourage more giving. If someone is feeling a bit socially unacceptable for having too much dosh, the arts institutions are always very happy to help assuage his or her guilt by exchanging free tickets, private views and a titillating coffee with an intellectual grandee for as little as 10 grand.

What they won't do - where the line is not so much drawn as sculpted into their sense of artistic integrity - is countenance any interference whatsoever in their programmes.

They consider being able to chose which play, exhibition, concert or ballet gets put on as a fundamental right of the artistic director.

No amount of coercion or cash will shift the director's stance; if it did, his or her institution would be deemed morally and artistically bankrupt - although financially much better off.

Unlike in the American model, that is a price British artistic institutions are currently unwilling to pay, whatever the ask.


  • Comment number 1.

    Let funding die. Funding has been killing the arts for years. It allows the establishment to appear to have a clawhold over art. Artists should be independent of the establishment, they should support themselves and succeed through determination, rather than mollifying themselves and wasting time filling in forms to get grants. The majority of funded artists today are at their most creative when filling out bursary applications. The Impressionists risked comfort and stability and reputation to create in spite of the Salon's ascendancy - artists today are supposedly infinitely more radical than the Impressionists, but are more in thrall to the system than ever, which is shown by the poshlost on display in London's galleries today. The funding culture is responsible for an era in which Damien Hirst can become the richest artist in the world and attract a huge viewership to see daubings that are worse than those of the least talented elements in your average high school art class - painting skulls on dark backgrounds, how astonishingly original!

    Real artists should stop grubbing for money and get serious - if they have to work in bars and clean toilets to make a living, it should only fire their passion. They should be brave and adventurous, not lounging in cosy flats and buying expensive coffees. The culture of funding is destroying art's spirit.

    Artists should be rebels and gypsies - not masters of the application form. We should be looking back to painters like Paul Gauguin - how did he manage to produce so many paintings that so deeply influenced modern art? Had you offered him funding, he'd have laughed in your face and gone back to work in his mud hut, hungry and ill, but defiant and original.

    Let the culture of funding recede until it disappears and takes all the mediocrities with it!

  • Comment number 2.

    Isn't the real reason for the reluctance to adopt American style arts fundraising really down to the fact that much of today's modern arts scene isn't actually worthy of patronage - and many of those within the arts are only too aware of this. The collusion between many gallery owners, curators, greedy dealers and artists of little talent have created a self contained world that could only thrive on public subsidy. I, for one, would not be disappointed to see this particular strand of the arts wither and die due to lack of funds. Perhaps then we could get back to real art rather than the confidence tricks of unmade beds and big bangs that only make noise when they fall apart.

  • Comment number 3.

    This American style of philanthropy won't take hold in Britain without major changes to the tax system

    When people here give to charitable organisations (charties, churches, arts organistaions) - all money given can be written off against their tax liabilities

    Although there is tax free giving through payroll available in Britain - the amounts you are allowed to give in any year are miniscule compared to here in the States

  • Comment number 4.

    Bravo, Tacrepus - damned well said.

  • Comment number 5.

    There has recently been some sucesss at uk universities at emulating the US fundraising efforts -
    The university of Cambridge raised £1 billion (not just for arts, but then is the book about arts funding?) two years ahead of schedule - very impressive in these fiscally tight times.

  • Comment number 6.


    But there is a system in the UK its called Gift Aid but it is the charity that claims the tax relief (and hence the additional £) back from the Goverment and NOT the donor.

    But there are some limits so the amount of Gift Aid relief can't be more than thye total amont you have paid in income tax.

    But why should someone be able to write all their 'gifts' off agaisnt their tax liabilities? Shouldn't people have to contribute to the general upkeep of the country?

  • Comment number 7.

    I work on environmental issues and had to jettison my dignity about 15 years ago, whilst trying to save critically endangered species from extinction.

    Given the extremely high levels of grovelling and indignity that have been the norm for many children's hospitals, schools and hospices for decades I suspect that the arts are in for a very, very rough patch in which the unthinkable will quickly become rather attractive... versus oblivion.

  • Comment number 8.

    The arts in the UK are funded via a number of different means, not just through government funding and is a much more mixed and diverse economy than this article (and subsequent comments) suggests.
    Not only government funding, but also sector- or artform-specific trusts and funds are available. These often require form filling too, but a development officer would probably spend as much time form filling as he or she might spend tickling the fancies of rich philanthropists, and yet this takes place as well in the UK.
    If we are to encourage this energy (and development expenditure) to be diverted into the art form itself, the only other form of income would be door-sales - tickets to see or participate in the art. Unfortunately the numbers just don't add up and many art forms and artists would indeed wither, meaning our consumption of art would over time become more limited, and less competitive.
    Let's keep the "arms-length" approach to the arts - a greater diversity of funding leads to a greater diversity of culture as more sectors of society (and individuals) can contribute in their own way.

  • Comment number 9.

    Gauguin-Lautrec, I do realise that the 'Let them eat paint' romantic ideal of the artist is attractive, but the art world isn't like that anymore. Unfortunately, it is driven by money; this is not because of the artists however (although I'm sure you will find many that enrol on degree programmes expecting to earn thousands shortly after graduation). I can assure you, as a recent graduate, that it is not easy. Yes, I work, and from what little I earn I can afford to rent a studio and buy modest materials. I make work not to make money, but for the love of it, and from, as I heard someone once put it, my 'inner need'.

    A lot of artists are migrating to new technologies (video/web/computer aided work etc), myself included. I calculated that I would need to find £16, 000 to replicate the kit I was able to use when studying, things that are now unavailable to me and hiring for one project might almost equal that expense). Now, I'm not suggesting that I should be funded to buy new kit, and I wouldn't want to be, but I am currently looking for funding along with the 11 other members of Sixes & Sevens) for funding that will allow us to develop as a group of artists choosing to work and develop together through a dialogue and interactive approach with other artists and groups throughout the UK.

    What interests me about the whole debate is the focus on established artists (Hurst, Gormley and all), with little focus on those now emerging or beginning to build their careers. The future for artists is bleak without funding, our reputation as world leaders in the creative industries is as stake.

    Interestingly, Britain as a whole refused to accept the post-impressionists until almost 20 years after France had embraced them (it took a group of determined young British artists to persuade the nation). I hope we have shaken our traditional scepticism of what is new, but I fear not.

  • Comment number 10.


    I suppose you have read "History of Neglect, Labour’s Record on
    Heritage -A Report by Jeremy Hunt MP" Dec 2008 (It is/was on the web.) In this he bemoans the lack of support for Heritage, mainly on the basis of the money that can be made from exploiting heritage (even though he writes "Heritage is worth so much more than the economic benefits it entails".)

    This is we must I think assume what Jeremy Hunt still cares about - the money that can be made from the activities of the DCMS. So an instruction manual on how money can be extracted from his ministry's brief may come in handy, but we are not America and in lots of ways we are more conservative in what culture we are willing to support.

    Any idea that it is possible to create a super wealthy class to be philanthropic will always be stamped on the Her Majesty's Treasury. The American model is not dissimilar to the World up to the 19th Century where the powerful sponsored art - this is not a real option for the UK as as soon as anyone becomes wealthy enough they leave!

    The other matter you overlook is the puritan streak in the UK - the Levellers (from the English Civil War) are alive and well!

  • Comment number 11.

    As well as the aforementioned comments concerning the tax system, it's the paucity of interest in fine arts (and i include my own craft, being a classical music composer) by the last Government that really nailed a lot of craftsmen and craftswomen to the wall, and forced many to give up their chosen craft, for "socialist" work to feed themselves. All the altruistic tales of "painting from the soul" or "writing musical heritage" were met with the brutality of a government gleefully installing a succession of their ministers, who to a man and woman were culturally deaf.
    I don't think any artist or creative craftsman worth their salt would expect to be kept for a lifetime, simply because it was their "right", but to ignore them completely, and leave them to completely fend for themselves shows a spectacular arrogance of dismissal in the cultural heritage of a nation, and its society.

    The american system is inevitably political, and a closer look will reveal the "conditions" that go with any grant, or bursary. More akin to creative prostitution than a freedom to evolve creativity over a period of time, but then that's true for most sponsored work in one way or another. To adopt the same conditions in the UK is....unbritish, in a way. Maybe something halfway, and without pre-conditions of style of context, could work.

    I've had to work my entire compositional life without any sort of funding, save the jobs i've done to house and feed myself (both musically and non-musically related). That's kept me sharp in a way, but it also occasionally killed the creative flow through exhaustion, and the oft unsatisfying nature of the work.

    I don't ask this for myself, but let's hope the newly elected government have a greater respect for national heritage, and provide just enough funding to keep at least a few cultural craftspeople housed, and fed, without making them fat, or neccessarily..... comfortable......., so they can contribute to the cultural history of the nation. We can't live off the imports like Handel forever......

  • Comment number 12.

    Reading the comments on this post, it seems to me that you've all missed the point. Arts funding isn't for the artists. They'll make do without the grants. It's for the public. Arts funding makes the arts affordable for all. How many of you would be able (and willing) to pay the full, unsubsidised admission price to Tate Modern? How often would you go to the theatre if you had to pay £100+ a ticket? That's how much it costs to put on a show. The reason theatres can sell cheaper tickets is that they have other sources of income. (Also, the actors are paid a pittance.)

  • Comment number 13.

    First come core state functions, beginning with those which hold the state together - skeletal - and those which protect it from attack, internal and external - muscular - and, after that, there are a number of items on the palette, including health, education and the arts. The arts are not a survival function. They come last. Just as Esterhazy funded Haydn perhaps there ought to be some form of emulation here. That way perhaps we will have harmonious, melodious music rather than screeching, banging and crashing, and fewer beds in which the artist slept with many people, more genuine art. Unless of course I am to be paid for offering my bed, which I most certainly will if a fee of £500,000 is in the offing.

    More excellence less pointless, meandering squalor masquerading as 'art'.

    Point taken? I do hope so. Especially the Emin woman.


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