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Michael Kaiser Headshot

Are the Wealthy Obligated to Support the Arts?

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Liz Forgan, the former chair of the Arts Council of England, gave an interesting interview to Rupert Christiansen in The Daily Telegraph in which she criticized the wealthy of her country for not supporting the arts. While there are a few families who have been extraordinarily generous, she argues, too many of the newly wealthy are not helping support British arts institutions.

In particular she pointed to the "hedge fund boys" whose great wealth, she believes, should be shared.

She compared them, unfavorably, to Russian oligarchs who have been supporting arts ventures in their homeland (and abroad I might add). She wonders if they are uncultured or simply uncharitable.

I find her comments well-intentioned but a bit naive.

The truth is that people who gain wealth do not automatically become philanthropic in England, the United States or anywhere else.

Arts institutions -- and all not for profit organizations for that matter -- must make it engaging, fun, enlightening and inspiring to participate. They must earn their donors.

One can only imagine the letters the wealthy of England receive daily asking for funding. The remarkable web of excellent arts institutions in that nation are suffering from reductions in government subsidies as are their peers across the globe.

But what are these supplicants offering back?

How are these individuals to be rewarded for their contributions? What visibility will they receive for their largesse? Will they be able to partake in social events that are enjoyable and rewarding and bring them in contact with their peers? Will they have access to artists who they find inspirational? Are they being offered a menu of projects to fund that intersect with their particular interests?

Good fundraising results from a strategic campaign mounted by the arts institution that binds the donor to the institution, it does not emerge from the sudden achievement of wealth.

Arts institutions that raise substantial sums (and many in England do) mount programming that is innovative, have done the institutional marketing required to entice new donors and have a well-crafted fundraising plan. They create lists of strong prospects, cultivate them well and select the appropriate solicitor to ask for the gift. They also recognize that the first gift should not be the last so they ask for reasonable sums, foster strong relationships with new donors and work hard to increase the size of each gift, year after year.

Of course one wants the wealthy of any nation to help build the artistic ecology of their homelands. At this time more than ever we need the active participation of many people. But those with the largest economic stake in our society must be educated about the value of the arts in creating a healthy society and enticed to participate.

Moralizing, in my experience, to bully them into giving is not the appropriate tool for building a donor base.

Developing a smart approach to a given prospect, that suggests we know that we must give something back, is.