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Is it Wise for the Arts to Turn to Philanthropy?

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Monday saw the launch of the National Campaign for the Arts UK Arts Index, an annual report on the “vitality of the arts and culture in the UK”. It measures input to the arts – both financial and otherwise – and output, including financial gains, audience attendance, satisfaction and participation. This first report only draws on data from between 2007/08 and 2009/10, so although it's a fantastic start, next year's index, which will show the impact of the recent arts cuts, is when things are going to get really interesting.

Among the fascinating figures quoted (you need to be a member of the NCA to read the full report, but you can download a summary here), was that giving from individuals and businesses has fallen by 13% and 17% respectively since 2007/08. Given how central the notion of philanthropy is to Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey's arts funding policy – just last month the Arts Council launched Catalyst Arts, an £100 million fund aimed at helping cultural organisations to access more funding from private sources – these make for pretty worrying figures. Fundraising is a tricky business at the best of times and clearly the current economic climate has been taking its toll here too.

The organisations for whom fundraising is most difficult are small companies that operate under the radar of the big corporate and individual donors. Without the benefit of big branding and nationwide reputations, small organisations will always struggle to attract the necessary attention, even with the help of money from the Catalyst fund, which next year will be offering grants of between £15,000 and £25,000 to help organisations to build their fundraising capacity. And although I'd argue that it's a good idea for small organisations to learn to diversify their income streams, surely the best way of apportioning limited resources is for these groups to be spending their time making work, not chasing cash.

The index's worrying giving figures are echoed by comments from major individual donors, such as John Nickson, who has lead fundraising at institutions including the British Council and English National Opera, and has sat on the board of trustees of a number of education, development and arts charities. Speaking at the launch at the House of Commons on Monday, Nickson suggested that while existing donors were ready to be generous in their support, they're not happy to simply fill the gaps left by excessive cuts to public subsidy. The government, he said, must play its part.

But even if the plan does work and money starts to pour into the arts from businesses and individuals over the next few years (we shall see, but I'm not confident and haven't yet found anyone who is), perhaps the more important question is, 'is it really wise for the arts to turn to philanthropy to fill the gaps left by public subsidy cuts'?

I'd say not. The wealthiest in this country should certainly be contributing more to the arts (quoting Theresa Lloyd in Why Rich People Give, Nickson drew attention to the shocking fact that the 10% of wealthiest people in this country give away only 1% of their wealth annually, while the poorest 10% every year give away 3% of their annual income) but wouldn't it be better for them to do so via fairer taxation? That way the money is awarded fairly by the Arts Council and local government based on merit rather than being dictated by the tastes of individuals. Opera isn't more deserving of individual giving than theatre of the oppressed, but it certainly gets more cash.

Of course the government isn't proposing that public subsidy for the arts be withdrawn altogether, but just imagine if it was. I fear that the arts landscape would look very different than it does now, and that a very large number of deserving arts organisations making excellent and valuable work would suffer as a result.


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