The rich can do exactly what they like with their money, and philanthropy is just one option. So what do philanthropists make of the Government’s plans to stimulate private giving to the arts? Rosalind Riley gives a personal perspective
Last month I gave evidence at the Select Committee on funding the arts and heritage. I’m well aware I was invited to the Committee because I am a philanthropist (I made a written submission), not because of my artistic career (which is minor). My wealth is recent: I have worked most of my adult life in small- to mid-scale theatre, so unlike many established philanthropists I have a working view of the UK performing arts scene. Being a member of the artistic workforce as well as a donor gives me an unusual perspective: I could give an insight into what the search for private funding is like for the grassroots. I made sure to have many conversations with fellow practitioners beforehand in order to be able to represent their views.
In formulating their funding plans for the arts, the Government has consulted the big charitable foundations, and I appeared at the Committee alongside Dame Vivien Duffield, Chair of the Clore Duffield Foundation. A consciously formidable woman with enormous experience and influence, she was firm in her opposition to the Government plans, and pointed out that the ten or so largest foundations are already doing as much as they can and are unlikely to be able to pull any more out of the hat. I’m part of a tier of philanthropy which doesn’t usually get consulted and yet is equally being expected to step up to the mark and plug the gaps in arts funding. However, small arts trusts like mine are already inundated with applications and, for artists, generating income from them is random, unreliable and time-consuming. Jonathan Holmes, of Jericho House, whose 2009 site-specific piece ‘Katrina’ was supported by the Brook Trust, feels that applying for charity is not good business practice: “It’s like writing to Father Christmas”, he said, citing one trust with only £15,000 in its arts budget which has received 3,000 arts applications in one year.
I meet a lot of philanthropists through my association with the philanthropy department of a well-known bank, and while the larger foundations are highly visible, the smaller trusts and individual donors are many, varied, often publicity-shy, and not engaged in arts funding as a full-time job. There’s a completely understandable level of ignorance about the economics of grass-roots arts, and most of the people I meet are more interested in supporting social causes than in paying performers – UK philanthropy is directed almost exclusively to social causes, with only 2% of philanthropists giving to the arts. Even these individuals tend to be more motivated to give to the arts because of their links with regeneration or education than a desire to keep the arts sector afloat. The easiest arts donation route for the busy businessman or woman is through the larger institutions’ existing giving schemes, with their glamorous entertainment and convenient locations. Ironically, projects already funded by Arts Council England (ACE) are also far more likely to get philanthropic support that those with less reliable income streams: it’s a quick way for an outsider to select for financial and artistic probity.
My reaction to the plea by Government for an increase in giving to the arts is that it’s inappropriate. Ed Vaizey, at the same Select Committee hearing, called ACE funding “venture capital for the arts”, which acknowledges that even subsidised arts organisations are businesses which create wealth. We all know the arguments about the wealth generated by the arts; that more VAT comes back into the Treasury than is handed out in subsidy; that the subsidised sector supports the commercial sector. The arts form an industry which is as useful, remunerative and health-giving to this country as many other subsidised industries – yet we are not asked to personally subsidise farming or the steel industry. It wouldn’t surprise me if philanthropists simply continue to put their money where the most misery is.
As both an arts practitioner and consumer, I don’t think the arts should be treated as a charitable cause. Actors, painters and musicians are workers: financial support for the arts comes from tax payers and is administered on behalf of the people. This system is a welcome progression from the patronage of the ‘old days’ because, whatever its faults and omissions, it’s for the whole nation, not enabled by unaccountable wealthy individuals. The arts are not some alien, tacked-on luxury: they teach us communication, mental health and concentration, give us brain food and relaxation and give the nation glory and character. This philanthropist won’t stop funding theatre and music, but thinks the Government needs the arts for everyone and should pay the measly fragment of the tax budget it costs to keep them going.
Rosalind Riley is Producer with Fresh Glory Productions, and a Trustee of the Brook Trust. She acts under the name Rosalind Cressy and has been a member of a co-operative actors’ agency for 15 years. Fresh Glory’s production of ‘Lilies on the Land’ goes on tour in February.