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What a Difference 12 Years Can Make

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When I left the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in December 2000, fundraising was still considered something rather distasteful by many in England and few board or staff members believed it was their responsibility to be involved in it. I saw the handwriting on the wall: Londoners expected and deserved the best art in the world but their government was no longer willing to pay for it.

The government still gave a healthy subsidy so high ticket prices were unpalatable: why should art only be available to the rich since everybody was paying taxes and, therefore, subsidizing the very arts organizations that were so elitist. If one could not pay for art through high ticket prices and if government subsidies were going to remain stagnant, at best, there was only one more viable option: raising private contributions. (Yes, building other forms of earned income is also an option but for almost every arts organization these new strands of income are modest, indeed.)

Yet I had been sneered at, if not openly attacked, for raising large sums to get the Royal Opera House out of deficit and to pay for our new building. "Michael Kaiser the crass American" was how I was referred to in publication after publication when we successfully raised $100 million in about a year and a half. I remained undaunted because I believed then that the future of the Royal Opera House depended on a robust private fundraising effort.

I gave a series of talks just before I returned to the United States laying out this conundrum and suggesting a great national debate needed to be held to determine the future of arts funding in England, home to many of the world's great arts treasures. I did not believe anything I said had much of an impact.

Fast forward 12 years. The British government is encouraging private philanthropy and the big discussion now is not about its crassness but rather whether arts organizations in London have an unfair fundraising advantage over those in other English cities.

Clearly it is easier to raise money in those larger cities with big middle class populations and large corporate bases, although the competition for funding is also substantially greater in more culturally dense venues.

Arts organizations in the United States are raising large sums in cities big and small; I have no doubt that in the coming years the same will be true in England. For if the primary motivator for philanthropy is the quality of art being produced, those organizations in Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds start from a strong position.

This migration in the discussion in England about arts philanthropy over the past 12 years is instructive because it previews, I believe, the discussions that will happen in city after city, country after country, across the globe. Arts leaders in Africa, Asia, South America and even much of Europe may be skeptical today about their ability to raise private funds; in a decade the discussion will turn to who in these regions is doing it best and why.