On Culture: Will philanthropists save the arts?
21st October 2010
The government has taken the axe to public funding of the arts, while the culture secretary says he wants American-style philanthropists to step in. But what do the donors themselves think? discusses Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian.
Dame Vivien Duffield is drinking a cup of coffee at a desk in her office in Chelsea. Short of stature and with a merry glitter in her eye, she is a forthright kind of person in her 60s. As an heir to her financier father Charles Clore’s stupendous fortune, philanthropy has been a major part of her life’s work. She is a munificent giver to the arts and what she calls “Jewish social stuff”. She has given masses to big institutions such as the Tate, but when we meet she is excited about a “just fabulous” Arab-Israeli dancer whose training with the Rambert Dance Company she has funded.
“That was a relatively small amount,” she says. “The bigger the gift, actually, the less moved you are.” Why does she give? “Well, provided one has enough to live on, and you can fly first class, and have given your children a good education, you can give away the rest. There are only so many hot meals you can eat. Especially when you are as fat as me.” How much has she given away? “I’m not entirely sure,” she says. “Over the years? It must be well over 100.” It takes my brain a second to supply the missing word: “million”.
The idea of philanthropy has never been so important politically – particularly in the arts. As the axe falls on public spending, with Arts Council England losing 30% of its budget over the next four years and national museums cut by 15% over the same period, giving by individuals has been touted as, if not a cure-all, then something that can help staunch the blood-flow. Though some cultural organisations are adept fundraisers, others have hardly given it a go: the argument is that private giving presents a barely tapped source for arts funding. Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has said: “If you said to me what is the one thing I could do . . . that would make a real difference to the arts, I would say it would be to help foster an American-style culture of philanthropy to the arts and culture here in the UK.”
Hunt’s views on philanthropy have not been universally well-received. Some argue that whereas well-heeled metropolitan institutions are likely to be able to afford skilled fundraisers, smaller and scruffier outfits in less well-off areas may be disadvantaged. Others have pointed to practical objections – US philanthropy comes from a completely different relationship between the public sphere and the arts: the US has a bred-in-the-bone culture of giving that we lack. Our system of tax benefits to donors, which Hunt has talked about reforming, is almost universally decried as bafflingly complex. Last week, Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre, put it like this: “I think people don’t know what tax breaks there are and I don’t think the Treasury wants people to know.”
Hytner also talked about something else: a persistent suspicion in the arts of wealthy donors. Crudely put, the fear is that philanthropists are more likely to want to fund what Marcus Romer, artistic director of York’s Pilot Theatre, described in a recent Guardian podcast as “safe stuff” rather than “edgy stuff”. Money, of course, buys power, and that goes for arts organisations as much as anything else. Hytner thinks such suspicion is misplaced. In his experience, “philanthropists want big, bold, risky and new”, he says.
*But what do philanthropists themselves think? Why do they give to the arts? How do they see their gifts in relation to public funding? How do they think philanthropy can be encouraged?
I meet Vernon Ellis at the London Coliseum, the home of English National Opera, which he put £5m into restoring. He is chairman of ENO’s board, and made his money at management consultants Accenture, from which he recently retired as chairman. Besuited and stiffly formal of speech, he gradually unbends as he talks about his giving. Was he not tempted to ask that the Coliseum auditorium be named in his honour? “It was offered, but I didn’t think it was appropriate,” he says. Instead, the company commissioned a bust of him, but when he became chairman, he asked that it be taken down. “It’s in a cupboard somewhere,” he says.
He gives because of the “personal satisfaction” it brings; aside from the contribution to the Coliseum, he likes to help young singers, and composers. He supported, for instance, the Opera Group’s production of George Benjamin’s opera Into the Little Hill, which, he says, “enabled something that deserved to be done to happen”. He clearly takes great pleasure in having commissioned composer Huw Watkins to write a piece for the Florestan Trio. I reflect that there is nothing bland or conservative about his taste. “It demeans people to slobber over givers,” he says shortly. “What I get from it is a sense of community and affiliation.” He tells me of his reluctance to talk publicly about his giving. There is an ambivalence about rich people in this country, he says: an idea that somehow you might be giving for the wrong reasons. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
All the philanthropists I speak to – from Judith Portrait, a solicitor who has given “north of £100,000” over the last decade to the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne, to Duffield with her nine-figure giveaway, have donated out of an evidently deep personal attachment to their chosen artform or institution. Portrait gives because she is mad about ballet and opera (with some exceptions – she shudders at the mention of Wagner) and is frequently to be seen at performances, though “not in the ‘posh’ posh seats,” she says when we meet in her agreeably tatty London offices, tapping her nose sagaciously.
Sir John Ritblat, the property magnate, funded the Ritblat Gallery at the British Library (where some of the institution’s most celebrated treasures can by seen by the public) after he went on to its board during its difficult birthing period. “It was the most wonderful, exciting time,” he tells me, sitting very upright at his desk in Mayfair in a dark suit with a natty red hankie in his top pocket. “I’m a modest bibliophile, and to me a library is a heavenly place.”
Nicholas Berwin, a former investment banker in his 50s, tells me he has given £100,000-£150,000 to about 10 individuals over the last five years or so, usually artists or composers – “emerging artists who’ve needed private patronage to help them reach the next level,” he says. Deeply marinated in the arts, Berwin spends several evenings a week at concerts, dance, opera or theatre. He is selling an Andy Warhol self-portrait at auction in New York this autumn, its estimate $3.5-$4.5m (£2.2m-£2.9m or 20 times what he paid for it a decade ago), and with the proceeds intends to set up a charitable trust.
“There is a combination of circumstances and factors that has led me to have capital beyond the needs of a reasonably comfortable life, and I am not interested in developing a luxurious lifestyle. I am much more interested in encouraging the arts, which are an essential part of my life,” he says.
Berwin bought that Warhol from Anthony d’Offay, who was the best-known London dealer in contemporary art from the 1960s until 2002, when he closed his gallery. In 2008, D’Offay sold his collection of 750 works of modern and contemporary art to the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland for £26.5m – the cost price of the collection. At the time, its real value was reckoned at £125m, so his deal effectively meant the work was sold to the nation at a discount of 79%.
I meet D’Offay in his office, a wood-panelled, book-lined room above a shop in Mayfair. A small Warhol portrait of Joseph Beuys faces me as we sip perfumed Chinese tea. “Giving is what makes you happy: not a chalet in Gstaad or an Aston Martin,” he says. His collection, called Artist Rooms, is designed to reach as many parts of the country as possible; next year, chunks of it tour to places from Llandudno to Orkney. His gift was born of the belief that art can be a transforming force, even a form of salvation, if you are allowed to get to it young enough. “Some of us have tough parents and difficult backgrounds, and culture can come and rescue you. As an adolescent, I would have been lost without literature and museums.”
D’Offay is, like all the philanthropists I met, surprisingly strident on the issue of government funding. “Public funding is the lifeblood of the institutions, the rock on which we built Artist Rooms.” He adds: “I’m interested in the concerns of a government that does zero to curb the excess of the City, and on the other hand is talking about culling the great educational resources that are of crucial importance to the national prestige.”
Ritblat, true to his calling as a property developer, is “enraged” by the way governments can neglect the fabric of its public museums, recalling the Victoria and Albert Museum back in the 1980s and 90s. “I used to go and see buckets and water pouring through the roof,” he says. “If they had asked me for money, I would have laughed.”
Duffield thinks “charity ought to be providing the icing on the cake, and the government should be providing the cake. I’ve always thought we should be doing the stuff government can’t – the interesting new production, say – not paying the core expenses.” She adds: “The return on the arts to the Treasury is huge. Cutting the arts is going to yield a relatively small amount and do much more damage.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Ellis tells me he believes it is right to worry about the balance of arts funding changing: “If the majority of money is raised from philanthropy, we’d be poorer on the artistic side,” he says. The American system “does inform the conservatism of some of the choices made there”.
Duffield also believes that there is more giving to be done – and better. Proportionately, she says disapprovingly, “the poor give more than the rich”, and “there is a lot of untapped money. Look down those lists of donors, and most of the names are Jewish. What about the Asians, the Russians?” Portrait cocks her thumb east: “I expect my colleagues in the City to give, but they’re a mean old lot.” There are wealthy people, says Ellis, who “fritter away tens of thousands on a holiday” and yet are reluctant to give.
Everyone agrees that the tax system must be simplified, but no one offers an easy way to tap more money from the rich: habits die hard. Meanwhile, the economic climate is not helping. “We’re doing frightfully badly. We’ve got to cut back and prioritise,” says Duffield of her foundation. In a time of general cutbacks, there will also, she points out, be more causes. “Can I really sponsor a new ballet when your local school is closing down its library?” she asks.
Wiry, energetic and fast-talking, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, former chairman of HBOS, who resigned after the government bailout of 2008, flings himself into a sofa in his Westminster office. He is chair of Aldeburgh Music, which runs Aldeburgh festival, and he tells me he and his wife give away about a “tithe” of their income. We debate what I perceive as a problem with Hunt’s thinking on philanthropy: that it is just much harder for small organisations in poor parts of the country to raise money. He disagrees. “Of course it’s more difficult in Hull than Knightsbridge. But in the most far-off places there are always wealthy or high-income folk. Not enough arts organisations use their noodle, still less their shoe-leather to secure funds.” It is within everyone’s capabilities to “build up a list of well-off families locally, work out how they could form a syndicate to fund a production or exhibition, and hustle”.
In a recession or out of it, arts organisations should learn how to sustain themselves. “My wife and I would no more give money to an organisation incapable of fundraising than jump over the moon,” he says. I am still nervous about this: should our society not want to protect the people who can make art, instead of forcing them to become entrepreneurs or mini-development directors?
Still, soon people may have no choice. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.