Michelle Wright takes Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey to task over his philanthropy reprimand in Arts Industry magazine

24th July, 2014

The ‘gift’ of rhetoric?

We’re in an extraordinary time, when even our own arts minister, the Rt Hon Ed Vaizey MP, is choosing to brand our regional based organisations “pathetic” for not being able to increase philanthropy. For him, every arts organisation in the country should be able to attract donations from individuals, from large amounts of £5m to smaller amounts of £500.

The DCMS has been advocating since 2010 for cultural organisations to increase their private funding as government and local authority grants are cut and, of course, the sentiment of seeking to increase philanthropy and to be more enterprising is the right one. After all, the times of plenty for arts organisations are long gone and only those that are fittest for purpose will survive.

But what is so utterly infuriating about this attack from the arts minister is not only its negative impact on a hard-working arts sector doing its best to rise to the challenge of
tough economic times, but that when it comes to real facts Vaizey’s points in relation to regional philanthropy seem baseless. Where are the statistics that tell us what the true potential is for stimulating regional philanthropy?

In an enterprise culture a new product is usually launched in response to consumer demand. So if we need to do better in stimulating philanthropy, then it would be good to start from a basis of knowing the market potential. Arts organisations are told that we need to get better at asking, the mantra of Vaizey’s previous boss Maria Miller, but if the potential
for philanthropy simply isn’t there, then getting better at asking is not going to create the demand.

Vaizey’s views came as the final part of a select committee hearing into claims that London receives too much money for the arts. It’s true that London is a bubble. Last year, London based organisations attracted 90% of all individual philanthropic gifts to the arts and heritage. But herein lies the issue – London’s propensity of wealth, and the relative density of arts organisations across the capital, of course makes it a hot bed for philanthropy. That is the very point, the market demand and culture of philanthropy already exists, in a way that it doesn’t across the regions.

When you consider that Arts Council England has some £700m to invest in the arts and that local authorities according to Arts Council chair Peter Bazalgette have £740m, when it is clear to me that the government would do well to seek to protect and encourage local authority funding as the biggest source of regional arts funding in the country. Do the figures stack up that philanthropic support in the regions can replace £740m in lost local authority funding in the short term? I think not.

I suspect that as we settle down from the Arts Council’s new funding announcements it won’t be long before our arts organisations are once again asked to look to the United States for examples of doing philanthropy “better”. But before Mr Vaizey books us another round of sessions with Kennedy Center head Michael Kaizer, it’s worth acknowledging that US arts organisations are also beginning to struggle. As the US gets set to announce its Guidestar report on philanthropy, giving levels in 2014 have still not recovered to pre-crash 2007 levels,
and with corporate sponsorship still hard to come by, the fundraising picture for arts organisations is tough.

I spent a week in New York in June meeting some of the US’s biggest foundations and arts organisations. For many development directors in the arts the reality is that the next generation donors, or those taking charge of family foundations, are more likely to take on health and education of humanitarian causes as opposed to the arts. High-profile philanthropic initiatives such as those of the Clinton and Gates Foundations are creating a
demand and peer pressure that is disrupting the status quo.

Jeremy Hunt, as Secretary of State for Culture, based much of his move to increase philanthropy on “nudge theory”. The theory pre-supposes that individuals can be nudged into making good decisions, not so much through diktat but rather by gentle pushing and by exerting peer-group pressure to do the right thing. I have a lot of faith in this theory, and taking Clinton and Gates as examples, it’s the role models and business practices
that will change philanthropic behaviour and culture, not a telling off by the government.

What our arts organisations need is programmes to develop fundraising talent, support from funders to embrace new commercially-minded business models and a drive to showcase the role models in the arts that demonstrate are showing both tenacity and innovation in driving new activity. If nudge theory is the answer, then let’s set our own Clinton and Gates style programmes for the arts that can help to stimulate demand. A concerted joined up effort is needed – we cannot just create demand and capability from thin air – and the government could help not by reprimanding but by underpinning rhetoric with facts, and by doing what
it can to protect the vital local authority funding for the arts that still exists.

The full article in the August edition of Arts Industry magazine can be viewed online.

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