Giulia Lasen discusses private, not-for-profit art spaces, and a different kind of philanthropy

Philanthropy is traditionally understood as involving in-kind or monetary donations to an existing organisation. Some contemporary art collectors seem, however, to prefer to get more involved, to the point of setting up their own organisations. The expansion of the market for contemporary art in the past decade has brought with it many private, not-for-profit galleries. In 2009 as part of a Masters degree I researched these organisations, focusing on four London-based case studies.

The David Roberts Art Foundation (DRAF), established by David Roberts, and the Zabludowicz Collection’s exhibition space in Camden, created by Anita Zabludowicz, were both launched in 2007. They offer programmes of temporary exhibitions using their founders’ collections as a starting point, but also including works on loan. In 2009, collectors Nonna Materkova and Alex Sainsbury launched, respectively, ‘Calvert22’ and ‘Raven Row’, spaces for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. In the latter two cases, there are no collections involved or any direct relation with their founders’ collecting activities. These spaces, open for free to the public, differ from commercial galleries due to their not-for-profit status and the absence of artworks for sale. They are, however, ‘private’, as financial resources come from a private individual, i.e. the collector, committed to sustain them with personal means.

The main motivation for collectors to establish these organisations appears to be the desire for a deep and very personal engagement with the arts, supporting both artistic and curatorial practices. This is perceived as value per se, following the principle of art for art’s sake. The absence of financial concerns allows the staff of these organisations to focus primarily on the artistic output. On the one hand they are free from commercial pressures, and on the other they do not need to comply with lengthy bureaucratic procedures or with funding bodies’ requirements in terms of social/economic impact – as may be the case in publicly-funded organisations.

Although promoting the exhibitions and getting positive comments from visitors are clearly important, marketing and audience development are not priorities. This is clearly different to publicly-funded institutions which have a duty to actively promote arts and culture and to engage the broadest range of audiences. Furthermore, setting up an art space has undeniably positive effects for the image of the funder, and this may then be instrumental in promoting other agendas, namely personal business activities. Similarly, high profile art collectors tend to be involved across many organisations, both in the public and private realm, such as museum boards or advisory boards for art fairs.

Without denying the positive contribution of high-profile philanthropists, some further considerations are opportune, given the government’s current emphasis on encouraging philanthropy. A salient aspect of these ‘private’ organisations is their freedom to set their own priorities, following the individual preferences and inclinations of their funders. It is necessary to ponder the desirability and consequences of an art sector highly dependant on private individuals, rather than a more balanced situation where private and public institutions work alongside each other: some can fulfil the personal aspirations of philanthropists while the others promote the arts for the public interest.

Giulia Lasen collaborates with Invisible Studio, a digital communication studio based in London and Milan.