BBC BLOGS - Gomp/arts
« Previous | Main | Next »

Philanthropy again

Post categories:

Will Gompertz | 09:42 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011

Can philanthropy save the arts? No it can't, at least according to the Tricycle Theatre's Nicholas Kent, the Serpentine's Julia Peyton-Jones, banker and philanthropist John Studzinski, and Colin Tweedy from Arts & Business.

Woman watching art exhibition

It was during one of those panel discussions, in which I was taking part, where the panellists respond to the question before chatting it through with an audience. I thought it was an odd question to pose. First of all it presupposes the arts need saving, which nobody in the room thought they did.

It also casts the arts as victim and the philanthropist as saviour, which is not how most arts organisations see themselves. And it seems to overlook the fact that there are vast tracts of the arts that survive without any philanthropy and very little state funding such as book publishing, architecture, pop-jazz-world music, films and design.

Which is not to say that philanthropy shouldn't be encouraged, it should. But maybe it should start closer to home? I'm talking about the big nationals and a couple of high profile, London-based elite organisations that between them hover up the vast majority of philanthropic giving (around 80%) but represent a tiny minority (4%) of the country's arts institutions. They'll be fine come the implementation of the cuts.

But what about all those smaller regional arts centres around the country whose work is valuable to their communities but are facing the double hit of national cuts via Arts Council England and local government cuts. The stats suggest that they'll be no sharp-suited philanthropist to bail them out.

So, why don't the big arts institutions help them out? They could do so by "twinning". I know it's a bit naff when it comes to a windswept seaside town coupling up with one in southern Spain, but in the arts it could work: a major institution getting together with a much smaller arts outfit in the regions.

The big national company could help fundraise for their smaller "twin", share their administrative load and provide a bit of staff mentoring. And crucially the major arts organisation could use their marketing muscle and relationship and huge audience reach to promote the programme of the smaller organisation.

A struggling arts company would gain confidence and more knowing a major national institution was fighting their corner while also sharing their good fortune, not to mention a philanthropist or two.

The National Theatre has been doing this sort of thing for a while and I am told it's working well.


  • Comment number 1.

    I believe that "The Arts" can and should survive on their merits. If individuals or organisations (with their stakeholders' consents) are moved to donate to particular projects or individuals in the arts, that's fine, I'm all for it.
    What I think is wrong is State subsidy. The Arts Council and its grants should go. The present need to cut government expenditure is an ideal opportunity to end this unjust tax on people who have no interest in the object of their enforced beneficence. If a taxpayer is moved to give, let him/her do so directly and avoid the overheads of government bureaucracy.

  • Comment number 2.

    If we only lose the kind of arts that are shown in that picture, losing sleep I will not be. Most of what is considered art these days is a bad joke, so maybe philanthropy into a slightly more worthy direction would be more sensible. Not short term "these children can survive for two pound a month" charity but more "Billions of people will die in the meantime but in thirty years we'll have beaten cancer, aids and have a colony on Mars."

  • Comment number 3.

    I'd go along with the 'No it can't' answer too.

    Unless sufficient numbers of people want to pay to enjoy or experience 'art' then art cannot flourish or even survive and it does not deserve to do so. Having the state pick winners from amongst their friends always produces bad results!

  • Comment number 4.

    Alan - I'd be interested to know what your definition of a "just" tax would be. One in which you personally have an interest in the area it is spent in, perhaps? It would feel "just" for you, but "unjust" for how many other people?

    I, and many others, want to see the state subsidise worthwhile artistic endeavours that otherwise could not be financially viable. And we pay tax too. When I see the amount of money used to subsidise minority sport, despite the massive profits made by football, I don't think "screw the cyclists - either the Premiership can fund them or they can pack up and go home". Yet I have no interest in cycling, and I am more excited about the cultural olympics than the main event itself.

    I don't feel aggrieved about it because I recognise that other people do have an interest in it, and if we all contribute to the pot, we all deserve to get something out of it. If democracy was about only funding those specific projects that more than 50% of the country agreed with we'd get nothing done at all. Saying "if you want opera, pay for it yourself because I don't go there" isn't far removed from "if you want a bypass to ease congestion where you live, pay for it yourself because I don't drive through there".

    Cutting off support for an entire area of national life on the basis that some people consider anything that isn't utilitarian to be a bit "wishy-washy" is a poor decision. Especially when you consider the impact that the arts have in areas like mental health and crime. Which would you rather fund, a youth orchestra or a young offenders institute?

  • Comment number 5.

    @Eamon & John

    Cancer will take more like 100 years, I fear, and a colony on Mars much longer than that.

    Not that funding science and funding the arts are mutually exclusive anyway. But by your argument, if science can't fund itself by selling its products for hard cash, it shouldn't be done in the first place. And if a scientist is working on a disease that only affects a tiny proportion of the population, it's "unjust" for the rest of us to be funding it, right? Because we have no stake in the outcome.

    It is right that we fund the fight against disease because it is ultimately good for us as a society to have physically healthy people around. And it is right that we fund artistic endeavours because it is ultimately good for us as a society to have emotionally healthy people around.

    As for letting art that can't fund itself die... Vincent van Gogh survived on his brother's money and sold one painting in his entire life. Did his art "not deserve to flourish or even survive"? One generation's "bad joke" is another generation's masterpiece.

  • Comment number 6.

    "I, and many others, want to see the state subsidise worthwhile artistic endeavours that otherwise could not be financially viable." But who decides what are worthwhile artistic endeavours? The art world, on the whole, still tends to be an elitist world that survives on state subsidies. Some badly run major art institutions were deemed too big to fail by the Arts Council and were given a £43 million bail out last year, called Sustain (on top of their annual grant), whilst smaller arts organisations were given nothing. The major institutions offer free access and the Tate alone attracted around 7.5 million visitors, if they had an entrance fee of just £1 they would still attract just as many visitors (British Museum 4.8 million, V&A 3.5 million, Natural History Museum 3.5 million) and maybe they could then be philanthropic themselves by giving the entrance fee money to the small, well run, community and regional arts organisations that exist on peanuts.

  • Comment number 7.

    i'd prefer to see funding supporting local arts (of all kinds) and living artists than paying aristocrats for the pleasure of looking at Titians ( maybe if the money was not spent propping up ideas of the art establishment and more was spent supporting living artists and communities, the fine and classical arts would be able to pay for themselves. titian is clearly very good, but are two paintings worth £50 m? 2 million people visited the national gallery in london last year, and apparently the galleries in scotland attract 1.5 million across their four sites. if all those people (and bearing in mind not all visitors will have seen the paintings esp in scotland where a large proportion will not even have been to the correct site) were willing to pay 50p each to see each painting (which i would guess they wouldn't) it would still take more than ten years to make that money back.

  • Comment number 8.

    Philanthropy in the UK will never work as well as it does here in the US until the tax system is changed

    Here - any donations I make to an officially acreditted 501(c)3 organisation (which includes charities, arts organisationa s and churches to name but a few) can be offset against income tax.

    The charitable giving I remember I participated in before I moved here was cumbersome (could only be done through my comapny's payroll), had very limited groups you could contribute to and had a really low and miserly ceiling

  • Comment number 9.

    Has anyone taken into consideration the amount of money brought in by the millions of people who visit the art institutions in the UK or any part of the world? On the outset, it may not be an obvious a tactic to offer free access to the arts to rake in real $$$ - - - but hey, let's get real, the countless number of tourists, both local and foreign, definitely spend something to keep the economy going.

    Whether it is through philanthropic act or state subsidy, let not the value of the arts be undermined by over simplification of calculated returns. Salvation is a reciprocal path.

  • Comment number 10.

    I think people like to feel involved in the arts, and philanthropic giving - even small amounts - isn't necessarily about a tax write off or a financial motivation at all. It's the feeling of being involved, or having some sort of ownership over an arts organisation or project. As tax payers, we don't quite get the same experience knowing that our pennies - via the Arts Council - are helping to fund such and such an idea. Perhaps the AC could encourage us to visit what we've supported locally from time to time rather than leaving us feel somewhat detached from the process? There is a significant audience development opportunity through attracting individual private support of smaller amounts. Through networks of those who begin to feel an association with an organisation they're supporting, you can potentially reach more people through much stronger links.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.