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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Generosity gap

By Norman Lebrecht / December 6, 2000

On donations to the arts in Europe and America.

TIS the season to be giving. Something close to £12 million poured in last weekend to the BBC's Children in Need appeal. Another record total is confidently expected for the annual Telegraph charity fund-raiser next Sunday.

Manning the phones for The Telegraph, I never fail to be moved and humbled at the generosity of thousands of people who want to give others the chance of a better life. Never in human history has so much been freely given by so many in good causes - and I have the figures to prove it.

Statistics from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a specialist US publication, show that private donations rose by 13 per cent last year, six times ahead of inflation. Ordinary Americans gave no less than $38.2 billion to a bewildering range of causes. Some $12.7 billion went to educational funds and campuses, $6 billion to "human services and youth", $3.2 billion to international relief, $5 billion to health, $1.5 billion to religious groups and a breath-catching $1,148,845,641 to arts and culture - an explosive annual increase of 46.7 per cent, the second largest in any sector.

After a decade of increasingly diversified donations, money has started to flood back into the arts. I won't arouse your envy with details of individual benefactions, but the mayor of New York is about to approve the building of second, $678 million Guggenheim Museum, with a lead donation of at least $170 million pledged by an art-crazed insurance executive in Ohio.

Not since the 1890s, when Andrew Carnegie built a concert hall on an impulse and invited Tchaikovsky to open it, has there been such an opening of purses and an infinity of possibilities in developing the arts. Generosity has traditionally been easier in the US, where a liberal tax regime credits each charity dollar against the donor's liabilities, and the social rewards of supporting a public utility are not inconsiderable. A man who makes his millions by day in life insurance can mingle at night with the stars.

In Europe, where snootier attitudes used to prevail, old money was seldom tempted into arts ventures. However, tax breaks are being eased. In Italy, the authorities are virtually begging rich industrialists to take on the burden of funding 13 opera houses; one orchestra manager tells me that he expects to be fully privatised in five years' time. In Britain, Gordon Brown has granted incentives to dotcom moguls to invest shares and assets in charities and arts - and there is every indication that many are keen to share their self-made fortunes.

There are, however, two indigenous deterrents. The first is a woeful lack of professionalism in the field of fund-raising. It takes specialised skills to cultivate the kind of person who can afford a large gift, and those skills are neither appreciated nor properly remunerated on this side of the Atlantic.

An American orchestra, typically employing 90 staff, has two-thirds of its payroll engaged in fund-raising and marketing, and its chief executive ready to rush out and lunch anyone who gives more than $50,000. British bands can barely afford to employ one full-time fund-raiser, while in Germany arts marketing is still regarded as an amusing novelty.

The second, more serious, impediment is the composition of the boards that govern arts institutions. Where US boards are made up of eight or 10 major donors, or their wives, the British method is to stack boards with social luminaries, political lobbyists and retired public servants whose hand is rarely seen in the vicinity of a chequebook.

The intellectual input of these eminences may well be priceless, but when it comes to raising money most of them are about as useful as a fifth string on a Stradivarius. London's South Bank Centre needs to find more than £100 million for renovation. It has set up a Foundation and an organisation of American Friends, but nothing to compare to the pledges that will have New York's new Guggenheim up and challenging the Tate Modern before the tacky old Hayward Gallery ever gets its face-lift.

More pressing is the need at English National Opera, which is due to close in 2002 for a £35 million refit, of which £15 million must be raised privately. Pledges so far amount to £3 million. The chairman, John Baker, having seen the company through five tough years, has decided to make way for a successor with specific financial strengths.

Martin Smith, a City banker, will take command with an immediate personal gift that is believed to be in the region of £2 million, a gesture that ought to become the benchmark for anyone seeking to become chairman of an arts institution. The fact that it needs to be noted at all underlines the reality gap between Europe's artistic dreams and America's concrete marvels.

29 November 2000: Chaos reigns on the South Bank

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999