A further response to Timothy Ogden’s ‘Why philanthropists should not support the arts’


Fiona Ellis


Thank you, Tim Ogden, for a serious and considered response to the March special feature on ‘Why philanthropists should support the arts’ – even if I cannot wholly agree with you. You make some good points and land some punches on specific donations by donors and some pretty reprehensible-looking behaviour by arts organizations (though it must be said that most arts organizations have to struggle to survive even if we may not see it).

You begin by asking ‘If a large percentage of funding is in fact privilege masquerading as philanthropy, don’t we have a duty to call this out and confront it head on?’ There’s a leap from Caroline and Andrew’s ‘some of it’ to ‘a large percentage’. I don’t think we know how much philanthropic funding fits your description and you say as much yourself. You adduce some examples from the USA and I can counter with many, many more to the contrary in many other countries and in your own. In the absence of real data this just takes us into tit for tat and no advancement. What is absolutely clear to me from having worked in the arts is that the greatest philanthropists in arts and culture are artists themselves; the rest of us live off their generosity and willingness to work for very little.

But more to the point it is not only in the arts that philanthropy exercises its privilege. There is a significant debate to be had about how Big Philanthropy tries out its theories and ideas on communities who can’t argue back; the Gates Foundation support for the small schools movement in the USA was exciting, expensive and wrong. All praise to the foundation for owning and revealing its mistakes and learning from them, but should wealth be allowed to buy, at about $2 billion, the chance to experiment with a nation’s children?

Philanthropists make their own choices for good and ill in a whole range of areas. Some of their social experiments worry me a great deal more than the arts and culture grants. The best philanthropists challenge themselves about their choices, as Gates has done; the others indulge themselves and sometimes do good as a collateral result. Yes, there is vanity in naming a wing of a museum after oneself but that does not detract from the value of maintaining and developing the museum for public good.

We are in complete agreement about the importance of resolving profound social and economic inequalities but where we part company is in deciding what the basket of need contains. My contention, and that of many of the contributors, is that emotional, creative and intellectual fulfilment is as important – not more or less – and that to deny that is a kind of inadvertent condescension. This is not just a personally held belief but one that practical observation throughout the ages supports. In his response to you John Nickson cited the example of the last grand piano in Gaza: people want creativity and are delighted when someone who can helps them to realize their desire.

What Hania and I tried to convey in our own article was that, although you could schematize arts projects and grants into instrumental, enjoyable, self-indulgent, educational, life-enhancing and so forth, there was little point in doing so for philanthropists. Like any complex ecology, arts and culture needs all its parts since the one supports the other.

We chose the title of our editorial article carefully to underline that artists are influential exponents of values and are disruptive and challenging to power, which is why autocrats do indeed lock up the poets and artists. We did not claim exclusivity for artists but we do believe that the reaction of oppressors is a back-handed compliment to the importance of art in creating dissent. Art does this differently from other forms of activism – it engages minds and emotions, it can motivate by arousing passions in people who do not respond to other forms of argument, and it deepens emotional commitment in the intellectually engaged.

You say that art would happen without philanthropic intervention. Yes it would but there would less of it, less availability to the wider range of people, and more exploitation of artists. Those periods of flourishing you mention were significantly supported by benefactors but they kept the paintings and frescos for themselves in their palaces. Now, thanks to a combination of state and philanthropy, we (at least those of us in many states across the world) can all enjoy them. This is not true of the global south where art houses are fewer and states do not invest and yet … we cited examples of where people living in great need sought out opportunities for creativity or enjoyed sharing the fruits of others’ artistic practice.

I am glad that you end by saying that you don’t think there should be no funding of the arts. But in many places if philanthropy did not provide the funding, especially the kind of funding that allows artists to be bold and confrontational, who would?

Fiona Ellis is trust manager for Millfield House Foundation and guest editor, along with Hania Aswad, for the March special feature ‘Why should philanthropists fund the arts?’

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