By Peter Hoskin. Follow Peter on Twitter.
There’s one particular reason why, of all the Best Picture candidates, I want Zero Dark Thirty to do well at Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony – and it’s got little to do with the film itself. The reason is that Zero Dark Thirty was funded by Megan Ellison, a billionaire’s daughter who is wiring her familial wealth to filmmakers so that they can operate outside the usual strictures of the studio system. She also backed the best American picture of last year, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Ellison isn’t acting entirely charitably – her production company, Annapurna Pictures, presumably seeks a return on her investments, which now include the rights to the Terminator series – but there is still something charitable about her approach. She’s giving artists a chance, allowing them both financial and creative freedom. Or as Joaquin Phoenix, the star of The Master, tells the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Ms Ellison is “the Han Solo of filmmaking – you think it’s all over and she comes to save the day.” And, like Han Solo, she deserves a medal around her neck for that.
But the thing is, Megan Ellison isn’t alone in her home country. America’s creative past, and its present, is littered with patrons of the arts. Some of them, such as Howard Hughes, certainly had their own careers and pocketbooks in mind as they funnelled money into various artistic projects. Others, such as Solomon R. Guggenheim, were more philanthropic. But the fundamental point remains: there’s a lot of private money sloshing around America’s galleries, cinemas, libraries and music halls.
It is this American spirit – if you’ll forgive the sudden gear-shift into British politics – that Jeremy Hunt was looking to kindle when he was Culture Secretary. “If you said to me what is the one thing I could do that would make a real difference to the arts,” he said when he started the job, “I would say it would be to help foster an American-style culture of philanthropy to the arts and culture here in the UK.” His thinking was informed by the Government’s budget cuts. If the state is providing less arts funding, then surely it would help if individuals and the private sector provided more.
This isn’t to say that Britain lacks a culture of philanthropy. There are enough gallery wings named after beneficent big-spenders, and enough arts festivals sponsored by major corporations, to swiftly disprove that notion. But the philanthropic gap between us and America still looks as wide as the Atlantic. According to an Economist article – albeit one written a couple of years ago – Brits give, on average, £6 a month to cultural institutions. For Americans, it’s £37.
So, how are things going now? First of all, it should be said that some arts organisations have recognised that it’s their role – as much as any Culture Secretary’s – to ignite the flames of philanthropy. Fundraising teams have been expanded, and new innovations sought out. In this regard, the British Film Institute is a exemplar: a year-and-a-half ago, they began a successful drive for donations to restore nine of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent films. Any money was good, from a few pounds to thousands of them – a reminder that philanthropy shouldn’t always be measured in million-pound cheques.
And the Government has helped out, too. One of the most important developments during Mr Hunt’s time at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was the conception of the National Funding Scheme. This, as the official blurb describes it, “allows UK [residents] and visiting tourists to easily make a donation through digital channels to any participating cultural institution in the UK”. It’s due date is this spring.
Yet there are signs of slippage; not least in presentation. As Adrian Hilton highlighted on these pages last week, Jeremy Hunt’s successor as Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, has adopted the language and bearing of an accountant, and a rather unforgiving one at that. Her frustrations with those who constantly complain about the cuts – as though the arts can only survive on public money – are utterly understandable. But, to some extent, that’s beside the point. More might be achieved if the Government extended a hand of friendship to the doubters. If the two sides aren’t even on speaking terms, then what’s the point?
The Government’s aim should be to guide Britain’s artists through the new, rockier landscape. This could mean tax breaks for charitable giving, or it could even mean – what struck me this week, in particular – looking outside of this country. David Cameron’s 100-strong trade delegation to India contained only two organisations that could be described as cultural, and they were the British Museum and the British Library. This is what they call a missed opportunity. Just think of all the paintings that might have been sold to Mumbai’s high-rollers had an artist been brought along. Or the film deals that could have been signed were there a film producer in tow.
There are still unresolved questions about arts philanthropy in Britain – including whether it can extend beyond the big venues in London – and we hope to cover these in future on ConservativeHome. But, for now, let the Government meet, greet, wine, dine and schmooze. There are a million potential Megan Ellisons out there. As one member of the artistic community didn’t actually say: give us yer f***in’ money.