Magazine article The Spectator

How to Be Generous

Magazine article The Spectator

How to Be Generous

Article excerpt

The last few days have seen some hysterical over-reporting of a minor adjustment in the personnel of the Tory shadow arts team, and a woeful underreporting of an excellent new policy proposal. John Whittingdale, the Shadow DCMS secretary, has announced a plan that could help rescue the finances of museums, libraries and galleries, and encourage a new culture in this country, of generosity, philanthropy and pride.

Until Mrs Thatcher's economic and fiscal reforms of the 1980s, Britain was noted for its 'brain drain'. This, thankfully, was halted, yet in its place has been formed a cultural drain. Paintings, manuscripts and other private chattels are still being whisked across the Atlantic, flown to the Far East or even popping across the Channel to the drawing-rooms of Frankfurt. It is shocking that this should be happening in a country so obviously wealthy as Britain. Much as this magazine champions the free market as a means of enriching the nation, our belief in economic liberalism is not so dogmatic as to extend to endorsing the wholesale export of works of art. The establishment and maintenance of public collections of art ought to be a matter of national pride, not to mention a source of entertainment and pleasure for the people.

Yet for many years, the job of keeping art treasures in Britain was outsourced to the generous but lone figure of the late John Paul Getty Jnr. Many arts collections were neglected. In the past two decades, for example, Sheffield has gained a shining new tram system and has unwisely hosted the world student games, but the city's museum has not been able to buy a single painting since 1987. It is a similar story throughout Britain's art collections; even the once mighty V&A has a measly £1.1 million in its acquisitions budget.

This is partly due to the meanness of the general public; a relatively recent phenomenon alien to our national tradition. At the end of the Victorian age, Britons were donating to charity an average of £1 in every £10. Great statues and town halls were built by public subscription. Now, the Charity Commission struggles in its campaign to persuade citizens to give away just 1 per cent of their income, and most of what we do give goes towards finding a cure for cancer and saving downtrodden donkeys. While these are worthy causes, it is a matter of huge regret that there is not also room in our giving for the arts.

The lack of giving has much to do with the inexorable growth of the state since 1945. …

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