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March 30, 2010

Culture Shift

By Spear's

What this comes down to, if we’re being honest, is that high-net-worths are going to have to give while they’re alive and give while they’re dead.

Bear with us one second: back in the golden age of Athens, when democracy (of a sort) was flourishing and the Elgin Marbles were still new on the Parthenon, the state was run along lines that would cause a modern Tory to start smacking their lips. This is because private citizens paid for almost everything: sure, the treasury took in revenue, but that was only from subject cities. The state as omnipotent, all-money-grasping mother didn’t exist.

Private citizens had to pay a liturgy (from the Greek for ‘public service’) for a range of functions, from building and manning warships to funding the chorus of a tragedy to supporting athletes as they trained (although they ran naked, so clearly equipment was not that expensive). There was simply no conception of the state paying for anything beyond temples and jurymen.

This, to paraphrase, is what the Conservative party are after. Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt recently told The Guardian: ‘We want to persuade people that giving is not just a duty but one of life’s pleasures… If you have been successful, you should give something back.’

A Tory government would have policies to encourage arts organisations to build up endowments, presumably through philanthropic drives; to encourage those writing wills to leave more artworks to the nation through acceptance-in-lieu; and also to encourage the living to give more with a simpler gift aid scheme.

What this comes down to, if we’re being honest, is that high-net-worths are going to have to give while they’re alive and give while they’re dead. Spear’s thoroughly approves. Setting aside the issue of how large you think the state should be, and just what you think it should control, there are plenty of good reasons to encourage the wealthy to
fund the arts.

First, it should be part of the social contract, as Hunt implies: success should mean not just a house in the Hamptons but also helping heritage, arts and culture, as it has throughout history. In America, there is a much greater sense of civic responsibility, hence the enormous endowment of the Metropolitan Opera.

Secondly, more donors will (hopefully) mean a wider variety of projects funded. Instead of feeling obliged to give to the largest (hence most prestigious) arts organisations, HNWs can give to local ones or ones which pursue their favourite niche art form because the larger ones will already be well catered for with their substantial endowments.

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Finally, private donors will inevitably want greater transparency as to where their money is spent. Whereas
the government cannot keep track of all the money it pours in, or is happy to keep badly run sinking ships afloat, private donors will be all the more exacting, with resultant greater efficiency.

A survey by charity Arts & Business showed that in 2008–09 donations by private individuals to the arts dropped by 7 per cent. Neither the arts nor wider society, which benefits financially and economically from the arts, can afford for this to continue, and if the Conservatives can ameliorate this with a new sense of social and cultural responsibility, it is to be warmly welcomed. 

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