Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Giving

Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Giving

Article excerpt

How will the arts world plug the funding gap? Igor Toronyi-Lalic investigates

It's an idea so simple in concept, so elegant in execution, so bursting with potential, that you kick yourself for not thinking of it yourself. 'You put your project here, ' explains 28-year-old solicitor and budding internet entrepreneur Michael Troughton, scrolling down the front page of his flash new website. 'And you put your money there.' Even his cat comes to investigate.

What Troughton is describing is WeFund.co.uk, the first British attempt to apply crowdfunding to arts financing. Barack Obama used crowdfunding for his 2008 presidential bid - that is, asking a lot of people to give a small amount of money.

Now Troughton is applying the same principles to help fill the British arts-funding gap.

Creative people from across the arts, who are seeking cash for a new project, post their ideas online and then potential givers decide whether or not to chuck money at them.

'It's about the democratisation of philanthropy, ' explains Troughton. With a couple of clicks of a button, you can become a serial philanthropist. 'By pooling projects with a network of donors, you get a virtuous cycle of giving, ' he says, drawing what looks like a great big virtuous Ponzi-type scheme on a piece of paper. So you donate your ten pounds (or millions) to as many projects as you like. Once enough money is raised, the project goes ahead; if sufficient funds are not forthcoming, punters have their money returned.

Despite launching only last month, big hitters such as Northern Ballet are expressing interest. But it's early days. And he knows that he will have to overcome a stubborn English reserve to make a success of it, whereas in America 'crowdfunding sites have people joining up in droves'. One of the requirements of WeFund.co.uk is to film and post a video of yourself explaining your project. Will people jump that hurdle? 'Arts funding is in such crisis, ' he says, 'that artists know they have to start learning to do things in different ways. And they're probably better at making videos than they are at filling in Arts Council forms.'

It may plug some of the gaps that have emerged since the spending review took a 30 per cent chunk out of the arts budget. But even Troughton admits that his website isn't going to be much use to Glyndebourne or Covent Garden. For these mammoth institutions a long-term and more old-fashioned model is desirable - namely, the well-endowed patron.

The likes of Anthony d'Offay, who in 2008 donated one of the largest collections of modern art (including six rooms of Andy Warhols) to Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland; or Lloyd Dorfman (the founder of Travelex), who recently gave £10 million to the National Theatre (an announcement that was not made public until after the cuts to avoid further government retribution);

or Vernon Ellis, saviour of English National Opera in its darkest hours, are needed now more than ever. Ellis has given £7 million to the institution over a decade. And, of course, there are a few well-known philanthropic figures, such as the Sainsburys, the Ondaatjes and Vivien Duffield, who have been generous over the years.

Ellis, not a 'phenomenally wealthy' man ('well below the threshold of the Sunday Times Rich List'), is lounging in a very loose limbed way in an armchair in his Kensington ballroom. 'We need to get more people interested in and familiar with the process of giving, ' he tells me. A few minutes earlier he was exhorting the great and good - who had been lavished with food and wine (at his expense) and treated to a free evening of music from Opera Music Wales - to dig deep into their pockets for this small but impressive touring company. …

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