Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Art and Philanthropy

Now that we all know that government cuts are going to hit arts budgets pretty hard, organisations are being encouraged to find other ways to get the funding they need to survive. Obviously there is the idea of raising their own revenue, but for many this is not as feasible as it sounds. So now Jeremy Hunt (steady), Culture Secretary, is trying to develop a culture of philanthropy and volunteering amongst the rich and in big business, similar to what exists in America. It's a fantastic idea and if it works would make for a better, more culturally rich and generous country. But the challenges that must be overcome to make it work are huge.

First of all the philanthropic culture of rich Britons and big business in the UK pails in comparison to America. On the Today program (8th December 2010) John Studzinski spoke about how the idea of giving and volunteering is not something that occurs when people become successful, it is already there during their rise to success. Certainly there is a certain amount of money given to arts organisations by the well-off in Britain, but it ain't much compared to the US levels Jeremy Hunt is looking at. It is an unfortunate fact that in Britain when an individual or organisation gains a lot of money, they tend to keep hold of it, because after all, how do they benefit from giving it away? (Apart of course, from knowing that generosity makes for a nicer world n'that). Arts & Business is putting together a plan to forge links between artistic and commercial organisations and hopefully they will see some success, but we are asking for an enormous change in how a lot of people think about money.

The next challenge relates to tax. In the States, philanthropists are rewarded with tax breaks when they help out arts organisations (as well as hospitals, schools, charities, general good things that require money to survive). This is a model that I believe we should certainly import but I fear for its success when the tabloid press get wind of the rich getting tax cuts for helping out artists. I do not necessarily think that the public at large would be outraged by such a plan, but the tabloids are pretty adept at whipping everyone into a frenzy over money going to the arts (there's been much written in the right wing tabloids about it already). If we, as a nationwide community of artists, demonstrate how beneficial the arts are to every day life, from television and music, to literature and visual art, then perhaps public support for tax cuts for rich philanthropists would grow. We live in exciting times, when people are taking to the streets to get their voices heard. Who is better at getting across a message than artists? I would suggest no one.

Oddly enough the final major challenge I can see relates to artists themselves. There is an attitude, especially prominent in the South East, that London is not only an artistic hub where the best art can be found. How many artistically-minded Londoners get out of the city to see what is going on beyond the end of the tube network? And how many beyond that network believe that London is the best place for their art, to the detriment of their own area? Having worked with Diy Womp for a significant amount of time I can say that both numbers are unfortunately high. London certainly is rich with artistic and cultural happenings, but get outside of the M25 and there is a lot exciting and valuable art. Norwich has its Writer's Centre, Middlesborough the MIMA, Ebbsfleet its White Horse, and thousands of towns in England have local arts centres. Essentially the point is that the arts extends far beyond London (and Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, whathaveyou). It is vital for the continuation of the arts throughout the UK people support their small, provincial organisations before they start to look further afield.

It is a disappointing fact that the arts budget will be cut, and we stand to lose some organisations whose value will probably only be realised once they are no longer with us. As far as I can see, the best opportunity we have to keep the arts on their feet is to try and encourage a cultural shift away from hoarding and towards philanthropy. Essentially though, it is a question of social responsibility that involves everyone. The rich must realise that as successful people living in Britain it is their responsibility to give something back and help others, and it is our responsibility as lovers of the arts to demonstrate how valuable they are to the entire country. It is easier to be gloomy about these cuts than it is to try and emulate America's philanthropic attitude. But as any artist should know, great art takes hard work.

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