It was funded while it lasted

Thanks to a £10m donation, the Barings Foundation can honour this year's commitments. But, says David Lister, Barings collapse is still bad news for the arts
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The Independent Culture
On the night of the Barings collapse, David Carrington, director of the Barings Foundation, was at Leicester City Art Gallery to see a touring exhibition of contemporary Central American art, which the Foundation had helped to fund. Leicester may prove to be one of the arts organisations reassured by the £10m donation to the foundation from ING, the merchant bank's new Dutch owners, but the implications for the arts of the Barings collapse will be profound.

That may not be a priority for the bank itself, or for the financial journalists covering the story, but for the hundreds of arts bodies, from the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre to the London International Festival of Theatre (Lift), Barings has become synonymous with imaginative business sponsorship.

Last year the foundation, set up by the Barings board in 1969, gave £2.2m to 162 arts applicants. Other grants included £200,000 to refurbish the north wing of the National Gallery, matching funds up to £80,000 for the English National Opera's "sponsor a singer" campaign and £75,000 for the Africa '95 festival. The foundation has a reputation for encouraging risk-taking, funding arts education and helping to bring unfamiliar work to the UK.

But times have changed dramatically. The foundation has an investment portfolio outside Barings, which last year earned £1.7m; but this is dwarfed by the £12m it received from Barings itself to give money to the arts, social welfare, education and health projects. And, despite the ING donation to cover all existing obligations, the future is uncertain.

There are 700 applications awaiting decisions. Many of these would have been routinely approved in April. Among these is an application from Lift, which has been funded for several years. Its February application will not now be processed. The Spitalfields Festival has been more fortunate: its grant application arrived before the crisis, and it has already been given its largest ever grant of £25,000.

David Carrington, director of the foundation, said yesterday: "We will have money to spend this year, but it will be pretty modest. The foundation council will meet next week to decide on our future priorities. It's likely that we will still want to give money to the arts as well as to other areas, but the money is going to be a lot less.

"I can't be optimistic about the chances of any of the 700 pending applications. This year's events are clearly going to lose out. Lift is a very good example of something we have consistently funded, but the timing of the application coincided with the crisis. If Spitalfields had come to us now instead of a couple of months ago we would have had to say `no'."

So what will happen to those bodies left in the lurch? Julia Rowntree of Lift says: "The picture is grim and we may have to cancel productions. The Baring Foundation has been one of our most loyal and generous supporters and they encouraged us to put in a late application, as they could be flexible where we were concerned. Sadly this has militated against us. Some of the £20,000 was going to go on a cultural exchange with India, and some of it on bringing a production from the Punjab of The Madwoman of Chaillot, ironically a play about corruption and greed."

As well as giving £12m to the foundation, the board of Baring Brothers had itself begun to move into arts funding in a small way (around £50,000 a year), sponsoring the Royal Opera's production of La Traviata last year and helping to fund its education programme. The Royal Opera House does not expect the education funding to be renewed.

Colin Tweedy, director of the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, said yesterday that the Barings collapse was "very bad news for the arts. Very few merchant banks support the arts but, despite all that has been said, this was a bank whose directors believed in being good citizens. All the board took an interest in the arts - Nicholas Baring is chairman of the National Gallery." There can be no guarantee that the new Dutch owners will share the old board's enthusiasm. As Tweedy says, "It is frightening to think that the City may retreat into just being bankers."