No, Minister, philanthropy is not the answer for the arts

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ever since the coalition Government made clear its thoughts on arts funding, the cultural community has kicked against the Big Idea.

While the cuts came as little surprise, the central notion around the cuts, that philanthropy was the way forward, was unexpected. Moneyed individuals held the key to the funding of the arts, said Jeremy Hunt, when appointed Culture Secretary in 2010.

In Leeds this week, Hunt’s replacement in the job Maria Miller underlined her predecessor’s idea.

“Every different organisation needs a different type of support. I don’t believe any organisation should ignore the opportunities provided by philanthropic giving – and that’s not just large donations, that’s involving a broader cross section of people having ownership of the arts in their community.

“When you’re in difficult economic times, people are going to be concerned that those things which perhaps do rely on funding are going to come under pressure. I’ve heard today that the challenge is being taken up in Yorkshire. It’s important that every organisation is tooled up and skilled to understand the important role that sponsorship, philanthropy and other forms of funding can have in supporting an organisation.”

The idea that wealthy individuals or companies should be paying into the arts is not one that receives much support from the sector and Yorkshire arts organisations were clear in responding to Ms Miller’s enthusiasm for philanthropy that they do not think it is the answer.

Alan Lane is artistic director of Slung Low, a company which became a National Portfolio Organisation in the Arts Council’s last funding round – meaning it now receives core funding.

Lane says: “I don’t know a single organisation that isn’t taking the challenge of raising philanthropic funds seriously. We were attempting to raise funds this way before we were prompted, but my base is in South Leeds, and our toilet is in a shed outside. If anyone can help me find a corporate sponsor for an outdoor toilet, I will happily listen to them. Philanthropy is much more realistic and achievable a source of income to those who are based in London. That Maria Miller took the trip to Leeds bringing only the idea of philanthropy with her as advice for the arts organisations based in this city throws doubt not only on her understanding of the culture sector for which she is Minister, but her understanding of the country.”

The argument goes that companies in the South are geographically much better 
placed than those in the North 
to attract donations, but so are bigger organisations producing 
art that appeals to wealthy individuals, such as opera. However, general director of Opera North Richard Mantle says it’s not that simple.

“Philanthropy is not the panacea that politicians claim. It is seriously hard graft and (finding) private donations to arts organisations is a slow burn – it’s not something that people decide to do lightly. I’m up for attempting to find private donors, but we will not find them quickly, certainly not as quickly as the cuts we are experiencing start to affect us. Politicians claiming philanthropy is the way forward are attempting to let themselves off the hook.”

At the other end of the scale from Opera North, Red Ladder, a radical theatre company with a 40-year history, simply cannot attract the same kind of philanthropic giving. Artistic director Rod Dixon says: “Philanthropy as a means of funding is so incredibly hit and miss that most small organisations like ours would cease to exist. Art needs subsidy – it has needed it since the Ancient Greeks invented theatre – but patronage from wealth creators means that we will only get the art that they want. Counter culture is essential for the health of a democracy – if art relies on philanthropy it just becomes another commodity and it is so much more than that.”

Even in a mainstream organisation like the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the idea is anathema. “It’s not the answer,” says chief executive Sheena Wrigley. “Nor is it a new concept. Arts organisations have been working hard for many years, developing their fundraising work and finding income from elsewhere.

“We spend a huge amount of time working in partnership with businesses, the city’s universities and individuals but this does not replace or fill the gap in public funding. Philanthropy alone, particularly in the regions, cannot solve the funding gap problem.”