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.’

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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.

Despite thinking in retrospect that his own £5 million donation to the redevelopment of ENO might have been ‘a little rash’ (‘the Accenture shares would have gone up a lot more if I hadn’t sold them’), he describes the immense inner satisfaction and joy in seeing a project like that completed. ‘You get drawn to it,’ he explains, ‘and you get to understand the economics, and realise that unless private people do support a project it won’t work.’ And this satisfaction increases almost exponentially, ‘in direct contrast to the decreasing returns from spending more money on luxury goods’, he admits.

The motive is rarely, he says, ‘to have one’s name in lights and to be kowtowed to’ — though donors do want to be appreciated. Appreciation is something that high-flying solicitor Ian Rosenblatt of the Rosenblatt Series has found lacking. Over its ten-year existence, his operatic recital series (the only one in Britain) has delivered the British debuts of the likes of Juan Diego Flórez and José Cura, yet he has had to endure much nasty sneering.

‘One critic said, “Oh, he’s just one of those people who sticks his names to things. He’s got a bigger ego than he’s worth,”’ Rosenblatt says in his no-nonsense London accent. ‘I mean, what did they want me to call it?’ He laughs. ‘I thought that, on the basis that I get no economic benefit from it’ — he has sunk £4 million into the series — ‘I may as well try to get some tangential branding benefits to get recognition for the thing that brings in the money that helps to finance the concerts!’

People wonder why the rich don’t give more, and Rosenblatt believes it’s because ‘you have to put up with that sort of crap’.  We have a long way to go before we achieve parity with America’s everyday culture of giving. The first step, thinks Vernon Ellis, is to scotch the myth that tax breaks in America are more generous than here: ‘They’re simply not.’ We also need more fundraising dinners, more auctions, more matching schemes. In other words, we need to be more flash with our cash.

‘In America they’d name the lavatories after someone if they could get money out of them,’ explains Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts & Business, a body that was set up 30 years ago to help arts institutions to be more savvy. For Tweedy, the real hindrance has been state funding. That is the reason those who earn more than £150,000 give eight times more money in the US than in the UK. ‘In America you don’t sit back and wait for the state to build an opera house, you do it yourself,’ he insists. ‘We have to create a can-do environment.’

But it’s not as if Britain has always been a foreigner to the ‘can-do’ attitude. The Victorian era was arguably one of the greatest ‘can-do’ eras. But, back then, Christianity demanded that people give. Now, moral indifference and state handouts mean few pay any attention to these traditional requirements. ‘If the state had withdrawn all arts funding, philanthropy would have come to its aid,’ Tweedy claims bravely. ‘Our reliance on the Arts Council means a lot of people in the arts don’t want to get involved with business. They would rather just get the cheque. And my view is that they’re lucky they’re still getting it.’

© ANSELM KIEFER

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated