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The Big Arts Give: an Age of Philanthropy?

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

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.



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