They know it makes sense to support their opera

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Indy Lifestyle Online
GRAND artistic institutions are thriving in the United States, in a way that they are not in Britain, predominantly because of the philanthropy the American tax system encourages. "One of the most important things for those of us involved in the arts in the US is to have this tax deductibility," says Patricia Mossel, the Washington Opera's executive director. "Forty per cent of our $20m annual budget comes from deductible donations, the rest from earnings at the door." Of the donations, 2 per cent comes from the government, about 10 per cent from corporations and foundations, and 88 per cent from individuals.

The kind of individuals who choose to give their money to the Washington Opera can be broken down, Ms Mossel says, into three types. Those who are simply passionate about opera, those who see a need to embellish the city's artistic culture and those who are not necessarily enamoured of opera but think it is good for the city's economy, rendering it more attractive to visitors.

"Raising money is still tough work," Ms Mossel says. "It often involves giving people more than just the gratification of doing something good but actually providing them with recognition, inscribing their names, inviting them to special parties. But it remains especially tough here in Washington because we're not the number-one game. Politics is, and because of the politics we have a highly mobile society here whose attachments often lie somewhere else."

San Francisco, for whose opera Ms Mossel once worked as chief fundraiser, is a case of a city where culture and the arts are the number-one game. There the local government has gone so far as to impose a hotel tax part of the proceeds of which goes to institutions such as the opera, the policy parting from the enlightened awareness that the better the quality of entertainment available, the richer the local economy will become.

Such is the perception, for example, in Chicago. "The city of broad shoulders", the slaughterhouse of the Mid-Western plains, enjoys the services of one of the most vibrant symphony orchestras in the world. The CSO recently raised $110m to refurbish its orchestra hall. Sixty million came from individuals making tax-deductible contributions of anything from $3m to $5m.

Bill Jentes, a wealthy Chicago lawyer and a CSO trustee, was among the higher-end contributors. "I believe strongly that in this regard Britain should follow the American example," he said. "Here in the US there is a feeling - and I think history has proven us to be correct to have this feeling - that with respect to the arts in particular, charitable institutions are better off, more efficient and more accountable if they are out from under the control of government interference."