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'Dig deep' to boost arts funding, government asks

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 08 September 2010

The government wants more philanthropic donations to boost arts funding in the UK, which is under threat from the double blow of the recession and cuts. But will funders want a say in the artistic process? Culture editor Matthew Cain investigates.

The government wants Tate Modern and other arts institutions to get more funding from philanthropists.

Since coming to office, the coalition government's team in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has made it quite clear that one of its priorities is to boost philanthropic contributions to arts funding.

"What I want to stress is that we're not looking to increase philanthropy in order to take the place of government," explained Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. 

"We're very lucky in this country in that we have what's known as the mixed economy in the arts, whereby arts organisations depend not just on government grant but also on what they make commercially through ticket sales and through other services but also from philanthropists. 

"So there are in effect three pillars that support the arts in this country. What we do feel very strongly though is that not enough is being done to boost philanthropy in this country. We're at about a quarter of the levels per head as it were of the USA. We wouldn't necessarily reach the same levels of philanthropy as America but a lot more can be done to encourage philanthropy."

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Vaizey added that he believes we don't thank our philanthropists enough in this country or publicly celebrate their contribution to the arts. And this is something that he wants to change. One of the first things that his boss, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, did when he took up his post was to write thank-you letters to the top two hundred philanthropists with already existing relationships with arts institutions in the UK. 

The wider plan is to encourage a more open discussion of the value of philanthropy and more transparency about individual giving, in the hope that this will encourage others to come forward and part with their cash. Schemes already exist with this aim which will no doubt continue with renewed purpose under the new administration; Hunt inherited from the previous government initiatives such as the Prince of Wales medals for Philanthropy and for years The Sunday Times has published its Giving Index (alongside its more famous Rich List), celebrating those individuals who give money not just to the arts but also to the charitable sector.

However, glory - or even recognition - is often the furthest thing from the minds of the UK's philanthropists. 

Secret millionaires
Musa Okwonga of The Institute for Philanthropy estimates that just one in 50 philanthropists in the UK is happy to be identified as such; the remainder wish to stay anonymous. This is a strikingly different set-up from the US model, where philanthropy is much more openly discussed and celebrated. I was stunned on a recent trip to a contemporary art museum in the US to see a list of the gallery's top philanthropists emblazoned across the walls of the entrance hall together with details of just how much money each of them had given. 

There are other potential stumbling blocks to the spread of philanthropy here in the UK. The tax breaks for philanthropy are totally different here to the complex yet much more rewarding system that exists in the States precisely to encourage individual giving. In addition, individuals here, just as in any other country, prefer to give money to bespoke projects rather than contributing to the ongoing maintenance of an institution. And, here as in anywhere else, there are pitfalls associated with relying too heavily on the contributions of individuals whose wealth might fluctuate in line with the economy. 

A few years ago, the Royal Opera House renamed its Floral Hall after businessman Alberto Vilar who'd pledged an amount of cash which did not fully materialise, leaving the development team in a rush to find new sources of funding. Thankfully, the Opera House managed to fill this particular hole. But as an institution it is lucky. With its reputation, its wealthy regulars and the glamour associated with its royal patronage, it is one of the arts organisations in the UK to benefit most from philanthropic funding.

'Exemplary' arts funding
Another institution which benefits from generous philanthropy (as well as corporate sponsorship) is the National Theatre. Often held up as an institution with an exemplary funding model, the theatre's philanthropic and corporate funding is complemented by a government grant, profits from ticket sales, and money from its numerous bars, its restaurant, café and coffee bar. 

And nobody would argue that the National's creative output suffers from its commercial activities. West End transfers of hits like War Horse and The History Boys have yielded huge profits without any compromise to artistic merit. 

But, as artistic director Nicholas Hytner himself is quick to point out, not every institution is as lucky as the National Theatre. Organisations like English National Ballet have a commitment to touring and a permanent orchestra and company of dancers to maintain. Art galleries housing national collections like Tate, The National Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery aren’t allowed to charge for admission to their permanent collections. And institutions located outside London have less access to big money, often operate on a shoestring budget and have fewer members of staff to go out chasing new sources of funding. 

Which is where the government's plans could potentially run into trouble.  Jeremy Hunt has said that when cuts are made, he wants staff to be lost from the back office of any institution rather than the frontline of the creative process. 

But this strikes me as disingenuous. If Hunt wants institutions to raise more money from individual philanthropists and corporate sponsors, who does he think is going to do this? 

Josie Rourke, artistic director of The Bush Theatre in West London, already estimates that she spends between a quarter and a third of her time on development and fundraising. If her back office team is cut, then this proportion of her time will inevitably have to rise and the work produced by the theatre will surely suffer as a consequence.

As a freelance theatre director who has worked in the US as well as the UK, Rourke is concerned about the government's plan to promote a more American style model of arts funding here in Britain.  She points out that much of the more edgy, alternative work being produced on Broadway actually originated in the UK. 

And she cites an experience she had working in Chicago recently as a potential sign of things to come here in the UK if we switch to a model of arts funding more heavily reliant on philanthropic giving. In Chicago, Rourke commissioned an eminent American playwright to create a new framing device for a Shakespeare play she was directing. 

A few weeks before she flew out for rehearsals, the staff at the theatre suddenly panicked about the content. 

"There were two characters in it who happened to be gay," she explains.  "It wasn't particularly about gay themes and it wasn’t something being pushed as an issue but it suddenly made them very nervous.  They began to worry about the reaction of certain of their key givers."

What ensued was a very difficult creative process at the end of which the theatre staff overcame their issues and eventually stood by the production. But Rourke worries that a similar climate of creative caution and conservatism could spread across the Atlantic if we adopt a more American-style funding model. 

"It's about self-censorship rather than censorship," she observed. "It's about the fear that it creates in the individual who is programming or creating the work.  It stops us taking risks."
And creative compromise is not the only problem on the horizon. In the US, ticket sales are much higher for admission to all of the arts than they are here; a ticket to a Broadway show can cost more than three times as much as a theatre ticket in the West End and entry to the American national collections of art currently stands at around $20 per person as opposed to being free here. 

The British arts are not just admired throughout the world for their creative excellence but for their accessibility too. And it is this very accessibility which is now at stake.

Putting all these concerns to one side, it must be said that arts institutions across the UK are already working hard to raise funds – and they have been for years. Individuals are not attracted to careers in arts administration or management by high salaries or an easy workload but by genuine creative passion.

The first rule of every development department in the UK is that all staff have to cover the cost of their own salary to justify their position before they can even start to do the job for which they were hired. Many artistic directors I've spoken to point out that their development teams work very hard for little glory and often salaries far lower than if they were employed in other industries in similar roles. 

And the model of funding proposed by the government which all arts organisations are expected to work towards – a third from the state, a third from box office and a third from philanthropic and corporate contributions – is nothing new. In fact, many institutions have already reached the target. The problem is that the government is about to reduce its third. And the consequences of this are far from certain. 

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