Why Art Sometimes Needs Philanthropy

November 17, 2019

Changing opinions, instilling values and translating experiences across space and time, the arts play a crucial role in our lives. It can be argued that art affects the fundamental sense of self. However, as government budgets tighten, directly affecting the art funding, arts organizations are looking to philanthropists for support. This is nothing new as art and philanthropy have been natural bedfellows since the dawn of civilization.

There are many reasons for which art philanthropy should be fostered. It is a relevant actor in the field of arts and culture - from museums to opera houses, to galleries and theaters, few would survive without the funding from rich patrons.

However, art and culture remain a difficult "sell" for many funders. Why should philanthropists fund the arts?

Power of Giving | Culture & the Arts: Why Cultural Philanthropy Matters

The Challenges of Investing in Arts

Donors often find it difficult to measure the impact of investing money in art. The returns are not always visible, as when dealing with material things - it is difficult to know how an art project works on the imagination and emotions of its purveyors and consumers. The only measurable impact can be getting more people to participate in the arts or enjoy them as spectators.

Funders also often feel there are more urgent things to make donations to - they see better uses for their philanthropic dollars, particularly critical issues such as poverty, education, and health care.

At the same time, art funding seems elitist for many. They feel that to fund so-called high art and culture serves to help the already-privileged enjoy their privileges.

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Why Invest in the Arts?

When talking about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with its intrinsic value - the way it illuminates our inner lives and enriches our emotional world. "Art for art’s sake" — a term coined by the Aesthetic Movement in the 19th century— asserted that "art needs no justification, that it need serve no political, didactic, or other end". Besides being an enjoyable experience to many, art broadens horizons and promotes personal growth. Enabling a rich and diverse arts sector and bringing it to the widest audience possible requires a considerable investment in talent and audience development. Besides intrinsic, art also has an educational, economic and social value.

The educational outcomes of the arts are defined as changes in knowledge, skills and abilities. Arts are vital for our development as individuals, stimulating creative thought, imagination, analysis and opinion-making skills. Art education is an effective way to engage children and young people in learning across all subjects; art education helps young people develop creativity - a skill sought after in a number of areas and industries; it brings about shared cultural understanding; allow young people to hear voices which are  often marginalized; and finally, art education can result in a life-long engagement with the arts for many.

Among the economic outcomes of the arts are consumer spending on arts activities, employment within the arts sector and developments of local economies. The arts sector makes a significant contribution to income gained from domestic and international cultural tourism; it contributes to the regeneration of city and town spaces; it affects the growth of the arts industries, providing employment for many people; and finally, brings savings to the public purse. However, when valuing only this aspect, freedom of creative expression can often be made subject to political and economic interests, disregarding the necessity of promoting and defending independent artistic expression and distribution.

When talking about the social outcomes, we take a look at the changes arts bring within the community and their role in the people’s psychological and social well-being. In this sense, art contributes to the increased knowledge and awareness of social issues and the empowerment of all cultural identities; it can serve as a tool for raising awareness of issues around human rights and social justice that are seldom heard; as a tool for improving mental health and well-being; it contributes to increased self-confidence and social skills; and finally, it creates inclusion and a sense of community. The relationship between the arts and social change is not a straightforward one - philanthropists must play the long game and support art for its capacity to help us think deeply, critically, and beautifully.


Taking Part in the Transformation

There are many philanthropists who have given significant money donations, contributing greatly to the art sector thriving. Among them are Eli and Edythe Broad, with their name attached to pretty much every arts organization in Los Angeles and the locale, not least MOCA, LACMA, the museum at Michigan State University, the theater at Santa Monica College and the Los Angeles Opera. Their ongoing support and help sits alongside The Broad, the couple’s own museum that opened in 2015 to hold their 2,000-strong collection.

Other notable philanthropists are also Leslie and Abigail Wexner who donated $65 million to Ohio State University, partly to fund the school’s Wexner Center for the Arts; Arthur and Margaret Glasgow who gave $70 million to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond; Jorge Perez and the $30 million he put aside for the Miami Art Museum; and Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest behind a new arts complex at Columbia University in New York worth $30 million, and the $5 million they gave for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia; among others. However, art organizations and institutions should be discerning about their donors, as the latest Sackler crisis showed.

Christ Stone, of the Open Society Foundations, explained that philanthropic investments in arts "are a powerful means of fostering societies where dissent flourishes, skepticism and criticism thrive." Arts make a huge impact by reviving communities and reinforce the economy, creating an active and vibrant society, helping change attitudes, contributing to understanding and transforming our world, helping us re-imagine our past and present and transform our future, fostering the freedom of expression, enabling ourselves to make an impact in our world which would lead to change; enabling us to explore ways of thinking for ourselves, connecting us together through shared experiences.

We need new ideas, creativity, compassion, understanding and empathy, and philanthropy should be a partner in this transformation. By funding art, philanthropy funds our ongoing ability to define and shape our world.

Featured image: Eric Garcetti speaking at Los Angeles museum The Broad. Image via Flickr.