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Archives for December 2010

Easy to take theatre for granted

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Will Gompertz | 08:22 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010

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What would you pay to be one of only 300 or so people at a gig of your favourite musical superstar? Something like Prince performing at a ticket-only function in your local or Beyonce knocking out a live set for a select few? Millionaires pay millions for this level of intimacy with a rock-god; most, if they liked the act, would pay more than £29.

Yet that's all it costs to see Derek Jacobi - one of the greatest stage actors of this or any other generation - perform the role of King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse. And that's the most you can pay; if you don't mind standing, the price is £7. This is a production that the Telegraph's Charles Spencer described as the greatest Lear he has seen. No wonder it has sold out.

And in small subsidised theatres, such prices are the norm, not the exception. For example, and staying with London, tickets from £8 to £32 are still available to see the very talented Gemma Arterton in Ibsen's Master Builder at the Almeida.

The Donmar and the Almeida are just two of several small theatres around the country that are putting on plays featuring the very best talent the acting profession has to offer at relatively modest prices. Frankly, it's easy to take it for granted.

I did, until I sat transfixed by the Donmar's King Lear production, my feet resting on the stage, listening to the tormented old man on his descent into madness, battered by a storm and ungrateful daughters shouting in exasperation, "I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning".

At that moment it struck me like a stray bolt of lightening from the onstage storm: I was watching the very best the performing arts has to offer in any genre at the sort of proximity that was once reserved for royalty and oligarchs. Yet the tickets were affordable to the average punter.

Mind you, not everyone was quite so wrapped up in the moment. A couple of Americans were sitting next to me having managed to get hold of tickets at the last moment (I don't know). As they drank their red wine out of plastic beakers waiting for the show to begin, I watched as they hugged themselves with excitement at their good fortune.

Ten minutes later they were fast asleep. I bet they wouldn't have done that if they'd paid to see Van Halen in a similarly bijou venue.

Image of the decade

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Will Gompertz | 16:06 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

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What artwork springs to mind as the image of the decade? Was it Martin Creed's 2001 Turner Prize-winning exhibit of an empty gallery with the lights going on and off? Or perhaps you would nominate the 2008 installation of one of Jeff Koons' kitsch-rather-than-cute giant puppies that dominated a stateroom in Versailles, epitomising a period when contemporary art dethroned more traditional art as the people's favourite?

Maybe it was the extraordinary, unprecedented, ironic and iconic sight of Damien Hirst cashing in by selling a collection of his new work at Sotheby's in London while on the other side of the Atlantic the Lehman Brothers bank collapsed?

If it was any of the above, you will probably enjoy Decade, Phaidon's latest huge, back-breaking pictorial book documenting world events from 1 January 2000 (staff at Los Angeles County Emergency Operations Centre on alert for the Y2K bug) to 17 April 2010 (a coming-of-age ceremony in Quinceanera, Mexico).

Mural of President Obama by artist Shepard Fairey

I don't think the image of the decade was any of the above. I think it was Shepard Fairey's unofficial Obama Hope poster. It became not only the emblem of the presidential campaign, but also an image that captured an optimism held by many across the world that - despite war, terrorism, natural disasters and epic global financial crises - there was a future and it might be better.

Whether or not it is the defining image of the past 10 years is of course open to debate, but surely it is one of the defining images? Yet it is nowhere to be seen in Decade. There's a whole chapter called Hope that refers to Barack Obama becoming President, but no image: a glaring omission.

Looking at the book from an arts perspective, some other major themes are missing. There are for instance no images to capture "liveness", one of the big trends of the decade.

Mass public participation in arts events is not new, but the scale we've seen recently is. Promenade theatre, interactive artworks (more than 2 million people lay down and relaxed under Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project sun at Tate Modern in 2003), and festivals - book, comedy, rock or a mix of them all - are attracting millions.

The number of people attending live events is probably in part a response to the other great mass-participation phenomenon of the decade: the social network. This subject is barely covered in Decade: there's not an image of MySpace or YouTube and only the briefest visual reference to Facebook.

Nor are there any pictures of street art, which seems an oversight – it is after all a movement that has emerged over the decade with practitioners such as Banksy becoming significant cultural and artistic players. As for graphics, the visual language of society: there is nothing.

But it is impossible to cover everything, particularly in a publication where superficiality has to be the modus operandi. Other areas appear to be well served - terrorism, war, politics, sport - but I often found myself thinking that I had seen better images of the subject depicted. For example, the photograph of Herzog de Meuron's Beijing Olympics Birds Nest stadium made an extraordinary piece of architecture look ordinary.

Still, this is a bold, valuable publishing venture that will sit alongside my copy of Century (Phadion's pictorial history of the 20th Century) and together will serve as a useful source for research and remembering.

Coens: Overlooked by Golden Globes, but what about the Oscars?

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Will Gompertz | 08:51 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010

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Here we go again. The Golden Globes have just kicked off the movie awards season with the 2011 shortlist. This will be followed in quick succession by the Baftas, and then, at centre stage, the headline act that everybody really wants to see: the Oscars.

The Golden Globe gongs will be dished out on Sunday 16 January, providing some nice champagne moments for the winners while everybody else stares into the post-party herbal-tea mugs to read the mint leaves.

Does the fact that such-and-such a movie or actor won a Golden Globe give us a reliable heads-up as to the winners of the forthcoming Oscars? Recent history suggests not. But the runners-up prize isn't bad. A Golden Globes win guarantees that the movie becomes part of the "will-it-won't-it" chatter over the ensuing weeks, leading to a second lease of commercial life that has the box-office effect of a sequel without the bother of having to make one.

Already there's talk of this year's awards being dominated by a head-to-head between The King's Speech and The Social Network. Maybe; I'm not so sure. 127 Hours and Inception (both with British directors, like The King's Speech) seem to be at least as good, while Black Swan is both very different and, I am told (I haven't seen it yet), very good.

There is one other film that should be added to the mix and might come up on the rails and run off with the Oscar: the Coen Brothers' True Grit. Not released in the UK until two days before the Golden Globe winners are announced and totally overlooked by that short-listing committee, it would not surprise me if the Coen Bros have the last laugh and canter off with the Big Prize. Again.


What next for the UK's creative industries?

Will Gompertz | 10:05 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010

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"I don't want our creative industries to go the same way as our manufacturing industries," Ivan Lewis, shadow culture minister, tells me.

We were talking shortly before his appearance at the Work Foundation this morning to discuss their latest paper called: A Creative Block? The Future of the UK Creative Industries [2.08MB PDF].

The Work Foundation's Benjamin Reid is one of the report's authors, in which he highlights what he considers to be the imminent threats to our hitherto thriving creative industries (made up of the following sectors: advertising, fashion, film, computer software and services, music, art and antiques, drama, architecture, design, publishing, crafts, TV and radio and computer and video games).

Daniel Radcliffe from a scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Difficulty in securing bank loans, increased competition from abroad (China, Taiwan and Canada are investing heavily in the creative industries to drive their economies forward) and a propensity to sell off our intellectual property crown jewels (Grand Theft Auto, the Harry Potter film franchise and foreign ownership of our book and music publishers were given as examples) were cited as the major clouds on our knowledge economy horizon.

The creative industries have been doing well. This recently published government paper paints a picture of a flourishing sector that makes a significant contribution to the national economy, that has enjoyed above average growth and accounts for over 4% of all goods exported. Dizzee Rascal might not look like Alan Sugar, but when it comes to doing the business he's no apprentice.

But to who is a bank more likely to lend their money? A sharp suited businessman or a tattooed dude who's riding low and wearing a baseball cap the wrong way round? We know the answer. And that according to Benjamin Reid - and others such as the pop-star-turned-industry-voice Feargal Sharkey - it is a very big problem.

They say that the UK is in the talent business - whether that's software designers, architects or makers of pop music - and those individuals and companies need the same sort of investment and support enjoyed by other more traditional businesses.

The report also proposes that financial support needs to be met with a greater level of ambition for what the sector could achieve, or it argues the inevitable happens: the individual or business eventually succeeds and promptly does a deal with an overseas company who then own all their tax-yielding intellectual property for ever after.

Ivan Lewis had other concerns. He points to the recent arts cuts by central government and local councils and the suggestion by David Willetts that all arts and humanities funding for under graduate universities courses be cut too (the reason I gather is that they are cheap to run and therefore the newly approved figure of £6,000 tuition fees would cover the course's costs).

He goes on to say that in his opinion the government has a plan for saving money but not one for growth.

Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary and Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, have both made clear their shared view that the creative industries are a vitally important component to the British economy.

Jeremy Hunt should know, he has built a successful publishing business. But Ivan Lewis is concerned that without a cross-government group that includes (and is chaired by one of) the cabinet ministers representing education, business, culture and the Treasury then what he considers to be the necessary coherence to deliver a framework in which the creative industries can continue to thrive will not materialise.

At the end of last month David Cameron announced a review of intellectual property that he hoped would result in a more flexible approach to IP in order to create an environment in Britain in which future companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook might develop here and not in the States.

Some who heard this announcement pointed to the fact those American companies have all done very well harnessing British ideas within the current framework and didn't need any further help.

Does Shakespeare have the winning words?

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Will Gompertz | 12:08 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010

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The challenge has been set, the bar has been raised - the competition is afoot. The nation has been asked to suggest inspirational poems to be inscribed throughout the athletes' village at the London 2012 Olympic Games in order to give our boys and girls a competitive edge.

It is not a new idea and if you take If as the modern standard-bearer of inspiring-poetry-in-sporty-places, not necessarily a very good one for us Brits. Two lines from Kipling's famous poem are written above the entry to Wimbledon's Centre Court that might well have served to inspire all sorts of wonderful tennis players, but conspicuously few of a British hue.

Two lines from Kipling's If above door of Centre Court

Maybe Kipling is a bit romantic and brings out our sensitive, terribly decent side. After all, if you treat triumph and disaster the same, why bother fighting for every point?

Perhaps we'd respond better to something that doesn't give houseroom to the notion of failure. And for that we need look no further than William Shakespeare. Frankly you could adorn the entire village with rousing Shakespearian passages (and thereby make it part of the World Shakespeare Festival), but I will point to two of the more obvious examples of his adrenalin-inducing rhetoric.

This from Julius Caesar (Act 4, Scene 3) where Brutus is discussing war with Cassius:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
 
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
 
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
 
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
 
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
 
And we must take the current when it serves,
 
Or lose our ventures.

Or, if it's more of a rallying cry required, there's always the Henry V's speech in Act 3 of Henry V (edited for the most pertinent bits). A bit hackneyed perhaps, and the word English would need to be re-written to include the rest of Britain - but other than that, it should hit the spot.

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
 
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
 
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.

But if they insist on If, they should cut out all that triumph and disaster business and put this passage up instead near the cabins of the long distance runners/rowers.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
 
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
 
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
 
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on."

Happy 50th birthday Corrie

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Will Gompertz | 10:01 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

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Here are some snaps from my visit to Coronation Street's famous set taken while making a report for TV news. The soap was originally slated to run for a few weeks, but then took off like one of Jack Duckworth's pigeons and established itself as part of the country's dramatic DNA.

Rovers Return pub on Coronation Street set
Will Gompertz on Coronation Street set

John Betjeman was a fan - he considered it right up there with Dickens - as was (allegedly) Tony Blair. The show has frequently been lauded for picking up where John Osborne's Look Back in Anger left off. And there have been plenty of kitchen sinks, feisty women and flying ducks to entertain all classes for half a century.

The show's magic exists in the three pillars of great drama: brilliant characterisation, jeopardy and gripping story lines. A potent mix made intoxicating when added with a generous dash of dry comic wit.

I spent 15 years of my life watching the show, mainly with my dad, and therefore have far too many nostalgic memories to be able to judge it dispassionately. For me, in my Corrie watching years (1975-1990), it was the best thing on television by a northern mile of cobbled streets.

Alleyway on Coronation Street set

The set visit reminded me of the programme's magic ingredient: it was totally believable. The plies of bricks lying in the street after the tram crash were genuinely piles of bricks. The tools and machinery in Kevin Webster's garage appeared to be fully functioning tools and machinery. You could walk into the houses and they felt like proper houses not a set of fake walls and tactically placed scenery. Sadly The Rovers Return was shut so I didn't get a chance to pull a pint, but the cobbles were real.

Tram crash on Coronation Street set
Will Gompertz on the set of Coronation Street

I agree with Betjeman, Coronation Street is one of the great serialised dramas of our age as were Dickens's Pickwick Papers back in the 19th Century.

Happy Birthday Corrie.

Philanthropy for the arts

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Will Gompertz | 10:19 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

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If you didn't know the culture secretary's name at the beginning of this week, you probably do now: it's Jeremy Hunt. And today he's making a keynote speech in London on the future of philanthropy for culture and the arts.

Jeremy Hunt

 

This is a drum he has been banging ever since he was given the culture brief when still in opposition. The arts sector has heard the aspiration, now they want the strategy. "Show us the money" will be the mood in the air.

The expectation is that the minister will announce some nice tax breaks for philanthropists that will help arts institutions ease open the cheque books of would-be donors. An announcement about lifetime giving - where, for example, an owner of a painting can offset their annual tax bill by handing it over to the nation - will be hoped for, as will be a rationalisation of the current tax incentives such as Gift Aid.

Jeremy Hunt has made much of wanting to import an American style of philanthropy, but that is predicated on the sort of tax breaks the Treasury is unlikely to sanction. Number 11 tends to take the view that in the UK the arts are paid for by hard cash in the form of government subsidy, while the Americans do it through tax breaks. Can the culture minister persuade George Osborne to let him have it both ways?

I expect there will be mention of endowments and maybe a move to allow museums and galleries to use their historic reserves to "pump prime" their own efforts to create an interest-bearing war chest.

The concept of match funding is likely to get an airing. As I wrote earlier this week, it is a tried and tested way of encouraging people to dip their hands into their pockets - if you give £1 then the government or one of its quangos will match it with another £1.

There's nothing wrong with the idea in principle but if there is no new money to put towards setting up a fund then it will simply mean taking money away from what Jeremy Hunt calls "frontline" services to create the necessary cash pile.

We already know the Arts Council England intends to turn some of the arts organisations it funds into "mentor" institutions or "strategic partners". This in effect means asking the best-run theatres, orchestras and so on to offer advice and some services to the smaller arts companies in their area.

The sharing of skills, particularly when it comes to fundraising already goes on throughout the country with institutions such as the Tate and National Theatre helping support regional partners. More of the same is a good thing.

Creating a culture of philanthropic giving will take both carrot and stick. Many in the arts sector feel that they have had the stick via cuts and the explicit request by the government that they must up their fundraising game. They are now looking for the carrot - a few big, tangible ideas that will turn what some in the arts see as ministerial rhetoric into some concrete proposals on which to base their fundraising efforts.

Cultural Olympiad: Now we know what it is

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Will Gompertz | 11:23 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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Britain's epic Cultural Olympiad, which runs from summer 2008 to summer 2012, is past the halfway mark, yet all but the most ardent arts enthusiast:
  • has never heard of it
  • or has heard of it, but doesn't know what it is
  • or has heard of it, knows what it is, but couldn't care less.

A statue in Olympia

A statue in Olympia

If I start talking to someone about the Cultural Olympiad, I can be fairly sure that his or her first question, usually while stifling a yawn, will be: "What is the Cultural Olympiad?"

Well, the idea of mixing sport with culture goes back to the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece: mind and body, and all that.

The concept was revived and incorporated into the principles of the modern Olympics by founder Pierre de Courbertin in the late 19th Century. From 1912 until the 1950s, gold medals were awarded for literature, architecture, sculpture, painting and music.

There's no doubt that the UK raised the bar by making the Cultural Olympiad a central part of the winning bid. It started rather inauspiciously on the day the Beijing Olympics closed. Remember the embarrassingly shambolic and cliche-ridden handover where a London bus was made to look tiny as it drove around the mighty Beijing Birds' Nest?

Beijing 2008

Then there were the bowler hats and umbrellas: images of Britain that the tourist industry had spent the last quarter of a century trying to banish. It's fair to say that efforts started a little off the pace, but since Ruth Mackenzie was handed the leadership baton and took on the running of the UK-wide Olympiad, it is beginning to find some form.

David Hockney painting

David Hockney has responded to today's announcement with an iPad painting

Her strategy is to focus on a high-impact 12-week arts festival in the summer of 2012 to run concurrently with the games. She announced this morning that her London 2012 Festival will start with a concert in Londonderry on Midsummer's Day, 21 June.

Jeremy Gilley is the man behind the idea for that event, which will be a reprise of something similar he has run under the banner Peace One Day. Jude Law will add a bit of celebrity stardust and help with the programming. Like many of the Cultural Olympiad events, it is a collaboration with partners who already had the project in development but found that its themes would fit with those set out by Ruth Mackenzie. In this case it is the notion of the Olympic Truce, which again goes all the way back to the ancient Greek Olympics.

There will be a new theatrical extravaganza by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett who were buoyed by the success of their Monkey Opera a couple of years ago. And major exhibitions of the work of Lucien Freud and David Hockney will be presented along with a new commission by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who brought the famous Turbine Hall-filling Sun to Tate Modern in 2003-04.

This is one project to keep an eye out for. Eliasson has the imagination and ambition to create an artwork that will not only become world-famous, but could define the London Olympics 2012.

The big beasts will being doing their bit too. The Royal Shakespeare Company is taking part in the World Shakespeare Festival, which will see theatre companies from Iraq to Brazil coming to the UK to perform Shakespeare. And of course the Edinburgh festivals, which already make up the largest arts festival in the world, will be a high-profile contributor.

Empire Stadium, Wembley, 1948

Empire Stadium, Wembley, 1948

Then there's the BBC. The 2012 Proms will be part of the festival and there will be extensive coverage of much of the other activity on TV, radio and the web.

The Cultural Olympiad might have got off to a poor start and spent the last two years trying to work out what it actually is, but with the announcement today of the first raft of commissions - about a third of what will be a total of around 100 - it finally appears to be up and running.

Turner Prize: Susan Philipsz won and...

Will Gompertz | 08:53 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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I had a clear plan for this post last night when I set out to report on this year's Turner Prize. I would get to Tate Britain at 6ish, have a quick romp around the exhibition as a refresher and then observe the goings-on immediately pre- and post- the announcement of the winner for Gomp/arts.

This was the interzone between filing for the News at Ten and the yet-to-be announcement of the winner. A perfect time, I had thought, to use the Turner Prize as a bellwether for the state of the subsidised arts: to see how the prestigious event was coping with the chill wind of austerity after the recent cuts.

Would they still be serving rivers of cold white wine and mountains of nibbles to fields of well-heeled bankers keen to get in on the art scene, as had been the case when I was working there last year? Or was the party over before it had even begun, washed up on a tide of receding would-be philanthropists and contra-deal beer?

The truth is, I have no idea: I got no nearer to the party than the 50 or so art students who were protesting in the foyer about cuts to the further-education budget.

As soon as I tipped up I was informed whom the jury had selected as the winner then quickly ushered to a (very cold) back room to start writing a script for the evening's news. I complied as the roars of approval (to what, I do not know) washed over my detached team like the distant sonic boom of a passing aeroplane.

At 1945 our producer (Bernadette), correspondent (me) and cameraman/editor (Anthony) were ushered into the part of the exhibition containing Susan Philipsz' sound installation and told to prepare for her imminent arrival to do a winner's interview.

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Right on cue she entered followed by men bearing cameras. The snapping started. After five minutes or so I got to interview her and elicit the soundbite or two I needed to drop into the news package before sending it off for broadcast. By the time we left at 2220, the party was over (the after-party was just beginning but an appearance on the Today programme in the morning put the kibosh on that) and, as you now appreciate, I had very little to report that you now don't already know (Susan Philipsz was only the fourth woman to win the Turner Prize and the first person of either gender to succeed with a sound installation. She was born in Glasgow in 1965, is based in Berlin and as from last night is £25,000 better off with no clear idea of how to spend it other than giving her parents a well-earned holiday.)

Little to report other than that, in my view, she was the stand-out artist on this year's shortlist, was clearly totally overwhelmed by her success and was a wonderfully self-effacing, charming, honest interviewee.

And that it is the second year in a row that an artist who makes beautiful, ephemeral work has won the prize. A sign of our times, perhaps?

The Big Arts Give: an Age of Philanthropy?

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Will Gompertz | 10:42 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010

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We've enjoyed the effects of the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment; now perhaps the arts in Britain are going to enter a new age: an Age of Philanthropy, brought about by the new coalition government and its vision of a "big society".

The philanthropist Catherine De Medici, as portrayed by Joan Young in Doctor Who (1966)

The philanthropist Catherine De Medici, as portrayed by Joan Young in Doctor Who (1966)

It would follow what many consider a Golden Age for UK arts, brought about by the weekly golden eggs laid by a goose known as the National Lottery.

The government wants this period of lottery-funded success to continue and is increasing the amount of lottery money going to the arts, but it believes an age of philanthropy will help ensure the sector's long-term success by spreading its reliance across more than one income stream.

Philanthropy in the arts is not, of course, new: the world has always been made up of people who make art and others who pay for it - but the scale of the notion of private giving is new.

The government wants this new arts age to have just as much "take" from the general public as has been the case in the past decade but now with a bit more "give" to go with it. The ambition is to encourage many more arts consumers to contribute their time and/or money.

It appears to be gaining some traction. Big philanthropic gifts have been received by, among others, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Tate Gallery and the National Theatre.

As from today, we are all just a click or two away from becoming part of the Age of Philanthropy. An initiative arranged by Arts And Business called The Big Arts Give will run for one week starting at 1000 this morning.

It is a collaboration with The Big Give, a charity founded in 2007 by Alec Reed, who also founded the eponymous recruitment company. The idea behind it is called "match funding".

If, say, you donate one pound, The Big Give will match it and in effect double your money: a tried and tested method for successfully encouraging people to dip into their pockets.

The Big Arts Give works on the same principles but is slightly more complicated: it has a limit of £500,000 with which to match donations; once people have exceeded that figure The Big Arts Give can no longer double the money. At that point, another aspect kicks in: the arts institutions that are taking part - there are just under 100 of them - have raised a further £750,000 in pledges from their own donors with which to match any giver's gift.

In fact, one of the very few original stipulations for an arts institution to become part of the Big Arts Give was that they raise between £3,000 and £50,000 to match any donations by members of the public. In the end, that bar was too high for some and had to be lowered to £750-worth of pledges. Still, some - including, I am told, Glyndebourne - managed to raise £50,000 in match-funding pledges.

Breughel's Procession to Calvary

Breughel's Procession to Calvary

But these are only pledges from the institution's own network of donors, who will not hand over their money until a member of the public does so first. On the Big Arts Give website is published the amount each organisation has raised in match-funding pledges and the amount remaining.

Also listed are the projects for which the institutions are hoping to raise cash. Some are more exciting than others: a few seem, frankly, little more than a plea for extra dosh but one that has received particular attention is the National Trust and the Art Fund's campaign to save Pieter Brueghel's The Procession to Calvary.

The list of institutions taking part includes the mighty and the modest. All, I imagine, will be receiving a nod of approval from Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his colleague Ed Vaizey for having entrepreneurial gumption and for responding to the minister's call to embed philanthropy into the mindset of all publicly-funded arts bodies.

Those who have failed to get involved can expect a raised eyebrow instead.

PS: I will be writing further on the subject of philanthropy on Wednesday when Jeremy Hunt sets out his thoughts having seen consultation papers prepared by Arts Council England and Neil MacGregor.

Who wants to give away a million books?

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Will Gompertz | 09:27 UK time, Thursday, 2 December 2010

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Never read All Quiet on the Western Front? Or risked buying a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel - say, Love in the Time of Cholera - in case it disappointed?

The books include The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which features George Smiley

The books include The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which features George Smiley

Ever thought what would happen if Britain's leading publishers decided to give away a million books in one day - including David Nicholls' One Day?

You'll get the answer to the last question on Saturday 5 March 2011, otherwise known as World Book Night, when a promotion will take place that will make a supermarket two-for-one on a packet of bourbons seem very unadventurous.

A million books, from a carefully selected list of 25 titles, will be handed out by members of the public to members of the public. That's the denouement, but the fun starts today.

Here's how it works: 40,000 copies will be printed of each of the titles (which also include Yann Martel's Life of Pi and Nigel Slater's memoir Toast). As from today, you can go to the World Book Night website, choose one of the titles and apply to give away 48 copies to whom you so wish.

You are asked to submit 100 words explaining your interest in that particular book and those you choose are asked to pass it on once they've read it. In case there is a rush on particular titles, you are invited to offer a second preference.

Applications will then be sent to the relevant publishers, who will whittle down the list to a final 800 (800 people x 25 titles x 48 copies = 960,000 books) primarily aimed at getting a fair geographical spread. The remaining 40,000 books will be handed out by the organisers to those they feel have restricted access to literature.

The criterion for selection onto the shortlist is a little haphazard. The judging panel, which includes publishers, agents, booksellers, writers and broadcasters, was told that the majority of writers had to be from the UK or Ireland and to be alive. There was then some wiggle-room to include "wild cards", which appear to be criteria-free, barring the desire that the selected book should still be in copyright.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is also on the list

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is also on the list

The reason for this stipulation is that the event is not a purely altruistic act by the publishing industry; it is a promotion. The objective is to increase the market of those who buy and read books. The event could of course be done with Hardy or Dickens, but no publisher owns the copyright to their works, so the firms would not redeem the benefits should you become a fan after sampling their wares.

If the author is still in copyright - better still, alive and productive - the publishers' hope will be an enlarged fan base for their writer-cum-brand. So they don't want the market stimulation to stop with each book being given to just one person; they want to encourage the sated reader to hand it on to someone else with their recommendation.

The sheer scale of the project makes it intriguing: 1,000,000 books with a retail value of £8,390,000 given away in one night. Add to that the mass participation of the public and the ambition to roll the idea out across the rest of the world over the coming years and it starts to look epic.

The initiative has not been universally welcomed. Some booksellers are aghast that the big publishers are giving away the very product they are struggling to sell. And I understand it took some time to persuade at least one of the authors to agree to take part.

But if all goes to the organisers' plan, it could be a concept that works for all parties. The BBC has given its support to World Book Night and will be producing a range of programming and content to coincide with the event in March.

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