The great debate on philanthropy




 Sir Nicholas  Hytner, director of the National Theatre

 Nobody expects the arts to escape the public-spending squeeze. Like everyone else in the public sector we are braced for a spending round that will be, at the very least, challenging. There has, meanwhile, been a lot of talk about the replacement of the current funding system with something more like the American model, which is almost exclusively dependent on private philanthropy.

The Government has been, in my experience, more circumspect.Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Minister, talks about philanthropy, not as an alternative to public funding, but as an addition to it, and he has suggested that it will take 20 years before it has reached a level that will enable the arts to be substantially less dependent on public investment.

Leading cultural institutions have been in warmly productive relationships for many years with both individual philanthropists and corporate sponsors. We all welcome the Government's commitment to encouraging philanthropy, and we eagerly await substantive proposals. Nobody in the British arts world would turn up their noses at the kind of tax breaks offered in America, where billions of dollars flow annually, not to the IRS, but to cultural institutions, channelled by a relatively small cadre of wealthy individuals. It remains to be seen how thrilled the British Treasury would be to swallow a reduction in tax revenue on the American scale.

The great London institutions have become, in any event, increasingly adept at paying their own way. In 1980, 60 per cent of the National Theatre's income came from the State; in 2000, 50 per cent; now, 30 per cent. This is partly because our turnover has doubled over the past eight years as we have become increasingly entrepreneurial. We also raise £6 million a year in sponsorships and donations, and we are by no means top of the league; the Royal Opera House last year raised £19 million.

I'm nevertheless deeply concerned that the success that a large handful of flagship institutions has had in earning and raising substantial amounts of money should not somehow give the impression that arts philanthropy is a piece of cake. There is, to begin with, a  symbiotic relationship between private giving and public subsidy. It is almost invariably the case that private sponsors gravitate to those institutions that are most reliably supported by the State. They are understandably attracted by stability and success. It is not easy for companies who struggle to make ends meet to find private sponsors to help them to simply survive. Nor is it easy for young companies, however exciting they may promise to be, to find individuals who will take a punt on their future success. Mere survival is no more attractive to private donors than the risk of failure.

Even more unsettling is the assumption that regional or small fringe institutions will have the same experience as the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House or the British Museum. Regional theatres have worked hard to form relationships with local businesses and individual supporters but, bluntly, the money is in London. Beyond the capital, theatres will be hit twice over by reductions, both in Arts Council subsidy and local government support. There is quite simply no prospect whatsoever of them bridging the gap through private giving, which is, outside of London, in its infancy.

In the great American cities, there is not only money but also a long-established tradition of philanthropic support for cultural institutions; and the recession has undermined even this. American museums have closed, orchestras have been disbanded, and last year alone there was a 3.2 per cent fall in cultural giving.

The situation is just as perilous for smaller experimental theatre companies, even in London. Quite properly, private sponsors are interested in the achievements and prestige of what were once called the centres of excellence.It is time to recognise that excellence is sought by everyone in the arts, and achieved in the most unexpected places. And the mighty institutions are utterly dependent on today's fringe for tomorrow's greatest talents.

Swingeing cuts in the arts would hit smaller and regional institutions hardest. Many of them would simply close. The immediate impact would be on the communities they serve, but the impact on the national companies would follow swiftly. All the writers, directors and designers and the great majority of the actors currently working at the National Theatre started their careers and gained the experience and expertise that made them what they are in the regions or on the fringe.

It is exactly this expertise, this creative confidence, that has ensured that the creative economy has been the only part of the wider economy to flourish and grow during the past few years. At a meeting at the Treasury last week, the Chancellor acknowledged that the creative sector is now as large as the financial sector. It cannot have escaped his notice that it has given him and his predecessors considerably less of a headache. It is our creative economy that is genuinely still a world-beater, and at its centre is the network of publicly subsided institutions that are its engine room.

In too many other areas of national endeavour, we lick our wounds and admit ruefully that we no longer punch above our weight; but our international pre-eminence as creative entrepreneurs is widely celebrated. It would strike the rest of the world as madness if we were now to undermine precisely the part of the economy that is not only working but blooming.

I am sure that the arts are resourceful enough to absorb some of the pain, and I hope the Government will work with us to develop a sensible long-term plan for surviving and even prospering through the next few years. Although we may be no smaller than the financial sector, there is no risk that we will bring the rest of the economy down, and every hope that we can be in the vanguard of the recovery.

THE TIMES,  Friday July 16th 2010