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Philanthropy and the Arts

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At the end of month, on the back of Government plans to slash spending on the arts by a third, I put a question on philanthropy to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.  

I pointed out that in his Department's structural reform plan, he’d made clear his support for philanthropic giving to supplement funding to arts and cultural organizations and asked whether he’d therefore join me in raising money for institutions in Liverpool.  “If I promise to get my mates to have a whip-round and to donate a few bob each,” I asked pointedly, “will he ask his twenty-two millionaire friends in the Cabinet to match our donations in proportion with their wealth?”

Jeremy Hunt’s response was as bland and non-committal as it was predictable:  “I’ll happily give the hon. Gentleman any support I can in his attempts to boost philanthropy in Liverpool, as I will to attempts in the rest of the country. He is absolutely right-one of the best ways to boost philanthropy is to find a rich person and ask them to chair the fundraising committee.”  The art of evasive political rhetoric, hey? 

Yesterday, Mr Hunt announced a ‘Ten Point Action Plan’ allegedly designed to boost philanthropic giving, most notably by cow-towing to big business interests at home and abroad and shuffling existing (albeit reduced) monies around in a bid to lever in ‘matching funding’ from private and corporate donations. It’s a feeble, gimmicky, Mickey-mouse piece of work – a veritable triumph of spin over substance. 

Take Point Two - ‘The Government reviewing what it can do to encourage philanthropy’.  Shouldn’t this be an integral and ongoing given, rather than a heralded aim?  Doesn’t it say something about a dearth of ideas and strategic vision and suggest a Coalition which is out of its depth and making policy on the hoof?

More worrying – and very revealing - is Point Three of the plan:  “More visible public recognition for philanthropy […]. This could include greater recognition through the honours system”.  Cash for honours, anyone?  Surely philanthropy is not (or ought not to be) about recognition – about self-congratulation and mutual back-patting amongst the Great and the Good?  Surely it is (or ought to be) about discreet support for worthy causes motivated by disinterested altruism?

The Coalition’s disingenuous ‘strategy’ fails utterly to disguise the reality that Government policy across the board has become an exercise in buck passing.  Just as the Government wants students to fill the gap created by its cuts to higher education, it has the brass neck to hope – and it is only a hope – that the private and corporate sector will carry the can for cuts to arts funding. 

This is absolutely in keeping, of course, with the mentality of a bunch of philistines who believe that market forces are a cure-all for the ills of modern society.  But they don’t appear even to understand said market forces.  Even in good times, the private sector rarely does something for nothing.  They tend to prefer brand sponsorship to unconditional beneficence.  In this age of austerity, with pressure being piled upon private enterprise to carry the burden of job creation and spearhead economic growth, private sector largesse seems even more unlikely.  The Tories’ own in-house ‘eccentric’, Boris Johnson, certainly recognises this : “[Arts and cultural organizations] already do a great job of fundraising,” he said, “but they can’t be expected to defy the laws of economic gravity in a prolonged downturn and in the face of necessary austerity measures.

What’s more, the Government seems oblivious to the pique of those long-established and long-experienced in charitable giving, who’ve made it clear it’s not their job to replace Government funding.  Celebrated Über-philanthropist Dame Vivian Duffield put it metaphorically back in October, when she said “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 the government can’t … not paying the core expenses.” To believe that arts donors can be coaxed, cajoled or bribed into charitable giving only adds further insult to injury.

And yet again, regional English cities – already deprived of their regional development agencies - are to be hammered, forced to go cap in deferential hand to their economic ‘betters’.  Liverpool’s fantastic renaissance occurred largely on the back of carefully planned growth in the cultural sector.  But its economy remains vulnerable in the current climate and as a number of the city’s cultural leaders explained in an open letter to The Guardian,  “attracting private support to the regions is challenging, to say the least, simply because we don’t have that broad business base or individual wealth.  Culture has driven the regeneration of cities like Liverpool […].  Restructuring the way in which [such] cities’ cultural organizations are funded will not only affect the local cultural ecology.  It will impact on the success of the entire city”.

Jeremy Hunt and his Government don’t seem to care much about the success of Liverpool, a city which has proudly dragged itself up by its bootstraps.  Instead, they’ve opted to throw it wide open to fate.  If we can attract philanthropic giving in a highly competitive market – great.  If we can’t, tough.  Survival of the fittest and all that.   Such is the nature of unbridled capitalism.  Such is the nature of life under the ConDem pact.

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