Why should philanthropists fund the arts?


Alliance magazine and Holly Steell


Alliance magazine’s March 2015 special feature focused on the question ‘Why should philanthropists fund the arts?’ and this was the topic of the recent Alliance Breakfast Club, held in London on 31 March and kindly hosted by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Fiona Ellis, trust manager of the Millfield House Foundation and one of the guest editors for the special feature, opened the discussion by rejecting the ‘false dichotomy’ between funding art for its own sake and for social change. For her the key thing about art is that it is disruptive. Reflecting on the controversy surrounding a recent project to restore the only known grand piano in the Gaza Strip, Ellis argued that investment in an arts project during such a desperate context is not a frivolous endeavour. People within Gaza supported the restoration project, as they ‘don’t want to be defined just as survivors’ but as ordinary people capable of appreciating art and enjoying a cultural life. The funding of this arts project enabled them to retain a sense of humanity. For them it was an act of rebellion.

Continuing in the same vein, Régis Cochefert, head of arts at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, explained that the social justice agenda permeates the foundation’s work. They make grants to individual artists and arts organizations in the belief that art has intrinsic value, and they do not expect immediate change as a result of their grantmaking. A grant to an artist might be used for paying rent for a studio, childcare costs or a holiday to ‘refresh their perspective’. ‘Equality of opportunity’ is the key notion used to determine where to assign grants.

Watch the discussion here:

Lucy Neal, theatre maker, community activist and author of Playing For Time: Making art as if the world mattered, stressed the importance of context. Definitions of progress need re-evaluation at ‘a time of environmental crisis’ and ‘systemic collapse’, she said. The context of today’s world provides what she called an ‘art-shaped space’. She suggested that a new paradigm can be advanced through ‘transitional arts practice’, acts of creative community that help people imagine the world differently and take the first steps towards creating a better future for humankind. Art can thus provide us with ‘a new story to live by’.

John Nickson, former fundraising director for Tate Modern and English National Opera, among others, was asked to justify funding for the ‘high arts’. Inclined to reject the distinction between high and low arts, he also preferred to talk about culture rather than the arts ‘because culture and creativity define humanity’.  The Nazi leaders Goebbels and Goering recognized the power of culture, and of opera in particular, and were both credited with saying ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun’. This strong belief in the power of culture was in evidence after the Second World War when many devastated German cities made it an absolute priority to rebuild their opera houses.

For Nickson, access is the key issue – and opera has a particular problem here as it is so expensive to produce. He talked about the role of philanthropy in making Tate Modern the world’s most popular contemporary art museum; the work done by the National Theatre to improve accessibility, such as broadcasting live performances to cinemas around the world and NT On Demand, which aims to take performances to all secondary schools; and London Music Masters, a small charity transforming the lives of inner London primary school children by professionals  teaching entire classes how to play classical music on the violin.

However, Nickson did voice his concern that art remains ‘a middle-class enjoyment’, despite the many initiatives taken to encourage people from all classes to engage with the arts – a view that was vociferously challenged by others.

But what about evidence of impact? If you require nothing of artists, how do you evaluate grants? Citing Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s recently completed ArtWorks action research initiative, Cochefert felt that there are opportunities to deliver clear value from investments in the arts. However, he insisted, it is crucial to maintain a flexible approach to grantees – you can’t ask the same of artists and arts organizations – and to be willing to encourage trial and error and to ‘support individuals in the early stages of ideas’. Despite the benefits not becoming apparent for decades, investment in the arts remains justifiable and valuable.

While Nickson acknowledged that value for money will always be a consideration, he maintained that ‘the best philanthropy is a moral commitment’, an ‘act of faith’. Ellis took the view that the ‘cult of measurement has got out of hand’.

Despite broad agreement with the idea of supporting artists ‘to do what it is they want to do’, members of the audience expressed concern about the erosion of government funding for the arts, and the likelihood that HM Treasury would take a more sceptical view of ‘act of faith’ funding. With private philanthropic spending standing at a mere 0.5 per cent of overall public spending on the arts – as Cochefert stressed, the idea of ‘philanthropy as a panacea to government cuts is a fallacy’ – measurability cannot be disregarded.

While the panel were largely in agreement about the need to make a better case for both public and private funding, there was some disagreement over its availability. While Cochefert saw public funding to the arts as ‘emaciated’, he was quick to note that cutbacks had yet to have a devastating effect. In Neal’s view, we are ‘engineered to believe in a scarcity of funding’ rather than focusing on the ‘abundance of creative energy in all of us’. She is looking forward to the next few years and seeing the ‘reinvention of the arts at the centre of our daily lives’.

The general feeling about arts funding could be summed up in Fiona Ellis’s belief that artists ‘join the heart and mind’, which then motivates change. Philanthropists can justify investment in the arts as it stimulates change that benefits all members of society. Referring to the lead article of the March issue of Alliance, she posed the question: if the arts are so weak, why do dictators lock up the poets first?

Holly Steell is communications officer at Alliance magazine.

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