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Michael Kaiser

Michael Kaiser

Posted: November 1, 2010 08:25 AM

The Fundraising Challenge in Europe

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For the past ten years, my teaching abroad has focused on countries that are experiencing great political change and dramatic modifications in the arts ecology. I have taught in South Africa, Eastern Europe, the Arab World, Pakistan and China, for example.

But a recent teaching trip to Lisbon, Portugal has me rethinking my strategy.

Lisbon is a beautiful city with a strong arts tradition. One has only to walk down virtually any street to appreciate the beautiful architecture and the appreciation of aesthetics.

But the arts world in Lisbon, like in other major European capitals, is in turmoil. How else can you explain that 450 people signed up for my class (which had seating capacity for 370)?

The current economic challenges in the world are forcing the government to reduce, sometimes radically, its support for arts organizations in the nation. This is clearly not a unique situation. Governments throughout Europe are now cutting arts subsidies, either gradually (France) or radically (England).

This is not a new problem, or news to me. But it was brought home so vividly during my class in Lisbon. I was introduced by the Minister of Culture, a passionate arts supporter and classical pianist of note herself. She appreciates the challenges of both sides of the struggle; not only is she a Minister and artist but she has also turned around an important Portuguese orchestra.

The mood in the room was apprehensive and a bit hostile. Arts managers and artists were angry that the Minister was not doing more to preserve their grants. And they did not know how to create other forms of income required to fill the gap left by reduced government support.

While it is easy to talk about ways to build donations from corporations and individuals, it isn't so easy to implement. Those arts managers brave enough to attempt to change their funding sources meet with mixed success on initial attempts. And it can be difficult to justify spending hours and hours to raise a few Euros when the government grant is virtually automatic (though arts managers there and elsewhere complain about the forms they must complete) and takes so little time to obtain.

But I remain convinced that some arts managers will be successful in building private philanthropy in Portugal and elsewhere. Already some are becoming successful. In England, for example, many major institutions can boast of highly sophisticated fundraising operations. It requires great discipline to keep at it, however. It takes courage to argue that a substantial portion of the budget will, one day, be financed by private contributions. And it takes a willingness to promote one's organization in a way that attracts contributions. This aggressive approach to marketing is counter-cultural.

It is likely to take one more generation of arts managers before private philanthropy is as common in Europe as it is in North America, if not as potent.

I think I will be spending far more time in Western Europe than I originally planned!